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With building grants, almost everybody wins

The state Capital Construction Assistance Board has made its final recommendations for 2013 funding from the Building Excellent Schools Today, and the decisions were good news for some districts and schools that have been on the bubble since June.

One school went away disappointed, the Ross Montessori charter in Carbondale, a 217-student K-8 school that had sought $11.8 million in state support for a new building to replace crumbling modular units located in an industrial area.

Although the board named Ross a finalist in June, and school leaders say they have raised their $1 million match, the board Monday took Ross off the list because its financing and land-purchase arrangements aren’t finalized enough to meet the standards for inclusion in the lease-purchase package that will be used to fund some BEST grants.

“It’s just really disappointing. … We’re 99 percent of the way there,” said Tami Cassett, a school founder who attended the meeting with a group of supporters and made a plea to the board. It was the school’s third attempt to land a BEST grant.

The board can’t commit itself to future grants, but two members, including chair Dave Van Sant, pledged to put Ross on the top of their personal lists when the 2014 round of grants is discussed next June.

Normally, the construction board is in the business of saying “no” to most applicants. Every year there are more applications than there’s money available, and the board often has to say no later to finalists who don’t raise local matching money through bond elections.

This year there was enough money to fund all the finalists – except Ross – plus all the alternates who were on a waiting list.

Two factors made it possible for the board to say “yes” to more applicants this year. First, all finalists but one passed their matching-money bond issues.

“It’s really neat the way people stood up for schools this year,” said Ted Hughes, director of the state’s school construction assistance program.

Second, BEST program receipts from state land revenues were higher than expected, giving the board flexibility to fund some larger projects with direct cash grants.

In the past, large projects such as new schools and major renovations were funded through financial instruments called certificates of participation, a kind of lease-purchase arrangement under which investors put up the construction money and are paid back over several years with state and local funds. Cash grants were used only for smaller projects like new roofs and boilers.

Who got grants

In all, the board approved $290 million in lease-purchase and large cash grants for 2013, including $190 million in state funds and $19.3 million in local matching money.

The grand total of the latest BEST grants is $302.5 million, $199.3 million of state funds and $103.8 million in matches. The total includes $12.3 million in smaller cash grants for repair work.

The larger lease-purchase agreements include a $29.5 million Sheridan project to replace an early learning center and renovate a middle school, a $42 million new high school in Cortez and $29.2 million to replace an obsolete middle school in Greeley. That last project had been on the alternate list. Greeley board president Doug Lidiak made a pitch to the board to be included in the finalists.

Larger projects to be funded with direct state cash grants and local matches include a $12.5 million project to provide a new school for special-needs children in the Pikes Peak Board of Cooperative Educational Services, $10.7 million for middle school renovations in Fort Lupton and $13.6 million for a new middle school in Salida.

Another mountain charter school, Aspen Community, is on the list for a $4.2 state grant and so far has raised $550,000 of its $4.9 million match. By being on the cash list, Aspen doesn’t have to have all its matching money in place by the Dec. 6 deadline for finalizing lease-purchase paperwork. This year was the school’s third try to raise money to replace a 42-year-old log building. A change in state law set the school’s match at more than $7 million, and the construction board deadlocked earlier this year on lowering the amount. Board members changed their minds after a little subtle pressure from the State Board of Education.

Even Denver is getting a $3.8 million cash grant to fund renovations at historic South High School. The district is providing its $3 million match out of the $466 million bond issue district voters approved Nov. 6.

In addition to Ross Montessori, finishing out of the BEST money is the 280-student West End district, which wanted to build a new PK-12 school in Nucla, closing an old high school in that town and the PK-8 school in Naturita. The towns are separated by about five miles.

More than 75 percent of the 668 people who cast votes opposed the $9 million bond issue needed to get the $13 million in state funding.

The construction board’s final list has to be ratified by the State Board, which takes up the matter on Wednesday. (Update – The State Board unanimously approved the recommendations on Nov. 14.)

BEST funding recipients

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