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Survivors bask in BEST success

Article updated on July 1

Three dozen school repair and construction projects Wednesday survived the always-grueling selection process for state Building Excellent Schools Today grants, winning recommendations for 2011-12 awards.

Prairie School in Weld County
Prairie School in Weld County

The state Capital Construction Assistance Board recommended 11 awards for lease-purchase grants, which are used for larger renovation and construction grants. The final decision is up to the State Board of Education at its Aug. 3 meeting.

The approved projects total about $172 million, $142 million in state funds and $30 million from local matches. State and local funds are pooled to pay off “certificates of participation,” the financial instruments that will be sold to raise construction money.

Significantly, the construction board also designated five alternate projects to possibly receive money if any of the 11 fail to raise matching funds. (The total cost of backup projects is $93 million, including $55 million in state funds and $38.7 million in matches.)

Seven of the 11 winners will need voter approval of bond issues in November to raise their matching money.

Last year the board designated only one alternate – the Akron school district – where voters approved a bond issue in November 2010 despite not knowing if the district would receive state money. Akron did win an award after voters in three districts – Elbert, Florence and Peyton – rejected bond issues, forfeiting the state money they had been awarded by the construction board.

Given the uncertainty of bond issues, board chair Mary Wickersham said, “It’s really important to have a substantial backup list.”

Here are the districts recommended for lease-purchase grants:

  • Prairie (Weld County) – $16.5 million for a new PK-12 school ($13 million state; needs bond)
  • Sanford (San Luis Valley) – $22 million for major PK-12 school renovations ($21 million state; need bond)
  • Rocky Mountain Deaf School (Golden charter) – $13.4 million for a new school ($13.2 million state)
  • Big Sandy (Simla) – $23.5 million for a new PK-12 school ($20.5 million state; needs bond)
  • Eagle County Charter Academy – $12.2 million for a new K-8 school ($9.3 million state)
  • Ellicott (Calhan) – $18.2 million middle school replacement ($15.8 million state; bond needed)
  • Ross Montessori Charter School (Carbondale) – $11.8 million new PK-8 school ($10.8 million state)
  • Idalia (far eastern plains) – $15 million for major renovations of PK-12 school ($11.1 million state; bond needed)
  • Horizons K-8 Alternative Charter School (Boulder) – $6 million in renovations ($5.5 million state)
  • Elbert (south of Kiowa) – $20 million new PK-12 school ($16.3 million state; needs bond and lost bond last year)
  • Southwest Open Charter School (Cortez) – $11 million for major improvements ($7.4 million state)

The designated alternate projects (in order) are Lake County, Sheridan, Ignacio, Peyton and Englewood.

The major project that didn’t make the cut was a $83.4 million renovation of several schools proposed by the Montezuma-Cortez district.

The construction board also recommended 25 cash grants totaling $26 million, including $16.4 million in state funds and $9.5 million in local matches. Cash grants generally are for smaller projects like roof and boiler repairs.

But the board did award cash awards of $5.5 million ($3 million state) for a new building at the Corridor Community Academy, a charter in Bennett, and of $2.7 million ($2.4 million state) for renovations and an addition at the Paradox Valley Charter School, which is in an isolated area on the Utah border. (West End, the district that charters the Paradox School, didn’t make the cut with its separate bid for a $22.2 million lease-purchase project.)

Five of the 11 lease-purchase awards went to charter schools, and the two charters recommended for cash grants will receive nearly a third of the state funds allocated to that category. The Colorado League of Charter Schools has been critical of the BEST process in the past, and league president Jim Griffin still has complaints.

“The quality analysis and information provided by staff was at times overshadowed and perhaps even disregarded by individual board members’ personal perceptions of specific applicants and projects. We are dismayed that for a second year a meritorious proposal from the Aspen Community Charter School was not awarded seemingly due to factors beyond their control – their Aspen address, and being authorized by a school district that’s not in a position to contribute to their facilities needs,” he said in a statement on Friday.

The Aspen school is in a log building on a hilly rural site. During deliberations board members expressed concerns about the high, county-mandated site preparation costs involved in building a new school.

The total of cash and lease-purchase grants (not counting alternates) is $198.8 million, $158.6 million in state funds and $40 million in local matches.

There were more than 70 applications filed with a total cost of about $553 million, including some $372 in state funds and $181 in proposed local matches. The board began review of 2011-12 applications Monday morning and wrapped up at mid-afternoon Wednesday.

Selection process arduous and tense

The selection process is a high-stakes one, because many districts and charters, especially smaller ones, have few if any other options for construction funding.

“The BEST program is our only hope,” Sanford Superintendent Kevin Edgar told the board.

One board member said the board has been lobbied, and legislators submitted letters of support for a couple of projects.

Unavoidably, most applicants come away disappointed. As Wickersham said, “We understand what everyone has gone through to get in this room. It’s just that we have to pick. We have requests for almost twice as many dollars as we have available.”

The first two days of board meetings drew crowds of 70 or more – superintendents, administrators, architects, planners and others with an interest in the outcome. By Wednesday morning the crowd had thinned, as the board neared its final decisions and many projects already were out of the running.

The process for getting a BEST grant is an arduous one that climaxes during the board’s multi-day selection process every June. Some prospective applicants start working with staff of the Division of Public School Capital Construction Assistance a year ahead of time, and all applicants have to file detailed paperwork. The summary book prepared for the board runs to more than 900 pages.

Division staff evaluate and sort applications on a variety of factors, including building condition, building suitability for education, applicant ability to provide a match, availability of financial reserves and other criteria.

The board changed its process this year to give fuller consideration to all applications. In the past the board tentatively approved projects as it went through the list, keeping a tally of how much of the available funding had been used. Once the financial target was reached, remaining projects didn’t get much discussion.

This year the board went through each list, cash and lease-purchase, twice. On the first pass division director Ted Hughes gave a brief description of each project, and district and school representatives were allowed two minutes to explain their needs. This was the first year applicants were allowed to speak.

Hughes’ descriptions reflected the big needs of most applicants – he repeatedly used phrases like “a lot of deficiencies,” “the end of its life” and “lots of issues” to describe existing buildings.

He and applicants recited long lists of specific problems – crumbling modular classrooms, asbestos and mercury contamination, schools next to landfills, schools located in strip malls, one-way corridors, no sidewalks between buildings and more.

On the second pass through each list, the board decided whether or not each project would go on a “short list.” No running tally was kept of how much funding had been used up. Board members also could ask questions of applicants.

Finally, each board member ranked the projects on the short lists, and the lists were sorted based on averaging of individual member rankings. Only then did the board go through the lists and select projects until the available funds were used up.

While the board has discretion of choose projects based on several building-condition, financial and other criteria, the BEST law gives top priority to projects that address health and safety issues.

The process begins in earnest again next Dec. 2, when the application window opens for 2012-13 grants. The program has only another year or two of substantial grants. After that most of the BEST revenue, which comes from state school lands and the lottery, will have to be devoted to paying off previously approved lease-purchase projects. to March 5 next window

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