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BEST board makes its choices (Updated)

Updated 12:30 p.m. June 29 – The state Capital Construction Assistance Board today tentatively awarded grants totaling about $184 million to 18 districts and charter schools for major construction and renovation projects.

The awards are tentative because the projects are subject to additional financial reviews before a final board vote next month, and some projects could drop off the list because of that. The State Board of Education will have the final say at its August meeting.

The projects selected (in priority order) are in West End (Montrose County), Elbert 200, Sheridan, Pikes Peak BOCES, Lake County (Leadville), Platte Valley (Sedgwick County), Hi Plains (Kit Carson County), Dolores, Lamar, Otis, Fort Morgan, Buena Vista, Genoa-Hugo, Fort Lupton, Montezuma-Cortez, Aurora, Aspen Community School charter and Ross Montessori charter in Carbondale.

Selected as alternates were projects in Denver, Greeley, Calhan and Salida. Alternates are in line for funding if a higher-ranked project has to forfeit a grant because of losing a bond election needed to fund the local match. Virtually all the finalists will be holding bond elections in November.

The board also designated 13 smaller projects as finalists for cash grants.

See the two lists of projects considered before they were prioritized.

Check EdNews later for a full story on the board’s decisions.

Updated 7:15 p.m. June 28 – After two days of culling applications, the state Capital Construction Assistance Board was left Thursday with a list of major projects that need $240 million in state grants, or about $62 million more than the $178.5 million ceiling the board tentatively has set for 2012-13 spending.

Starting on Wednesday, the board reviewed 74 applications for funding from the Building Excellent Schools Today program, discarding some and putting 25 on a short list for projects costing more than $1 million and 25 others on a small-projects short list. (See the two lists here.)

The large-projects list is the one with the tentative $178.5 million limit, and the board may change that amount slightly when it makes final decisions Friday. But some applications won’t make the cut. The board set a target of $9 million for small projects. The current list is about $552,000 over that amount.

On Friday, board members will individually rank the projects on both lists, and then staff of the state Division of Capital Construction Assistance will combine those individual rankings into overall priority lists. The board then will make decisions on the winners based on the amounts of money members are comfortable spending.

The current short list of large projects totals $362.5 million in total project costs, including $240.7 million in state contributions and $121.7 million in district and school matches.

The small-projects short list comes to $15.7 million in total project costs, including $9.5 million in state costs and $6.2 million in local matches.

Text of Wednesday story follows

A handful of big school construction projects made the first cut Wednesday, and some others were turned away, as a state board began working its way through dozens of applications from districts and charter schools seeking help with building and repair needs.

The state Capital Construction Assistance Board, in the first of three days wading through applications for 2012-13 grants from the Building Excellent Schools Today program, put big projects in Denver, Sheridan, Buena Vista and Salida on its short list.

The BEST program is the only source of state funds for school construction and renovation and attracts scores of applications every year from districts that want new schools, need to get rid of asbestos or hope to replace aging boilers, leaky roofs, mold-infested modular buildings and obsolete alarm systems.Some $439.8 million in projects is being sought by 48 districts, 12 charter schools, one board of cooperative educational services and the Colorado School for the Deaf and Blind. The requests seek $297.7 million in state funding and promise $142.1 million in local matching funds.

The BEST board decided at the start of the meeting to set a ceiling of $178.5 million on the state funds that will be devoted to 2012-13 grants. So, as has happened every year since the program started, most applicants will leave empty-handed.

“Every single project in this book deserves to be funded,” said board chair Mary Wickersham, referring to the 730-page document that details the applications. Because of limited funds, “We’ll likely be awarding only one in three applicants. … We are forced to make extremely difficult choices.”

After hearing a presentation on each application, the board decides whether to reject it or to put it on one of two short lists, one for projects costing more than $1 million and another for work costing less. Projects that make the short lists still face a final culling by the board based on available funding.

Larger projects that made the board’s short list Wednesday include:

Buena Vista – The 1,000-student district is proposing a $6.7 million project to replace the primary wing of an elementary school. Voter approval of a bond issue would be required for the $4.5 million local match.

Denver – The district hopes for funding of a $6.8 million project for plumbing, electrical, roof and auditorium upgrades at South High School, opened in 1925. A study committee has recommended DPS seek voter approval of a bond issue for this and other projects, but the board won’t vote until August.

Pikes Peak Board of Cooperative Educational Services – The board is seeking $12.5 million for renovation of a building to serve special needs children.

Ross Montessori – The 200-student Carbondale charter has applied for a $12.8 million project to build a new school to replace modular units. This is the school’s third BEST application. It received a grant last year but had to forfeit it after failing to raise its match.

Salida – The district’s $13.6 million project would replace an elementary school and would depend on voter approval of a bond issue to raise the local match. The 1,100-student district won a BEST grant in in 2010 to help build a $30.4 million high school.

Sheridan – A $29.5 million project to replace an early childhood center and renovate a middle school would be paid for with $23 million from the state. The district’s $6.5 million match would be contingent on voter approval of a bond issue. The 1,600-student district was an alternate for a BEST grant last year but failed to pass a bond proposal.

Here are the larger projects that the board didn’t advance:

Caprock Academy – The 640-student Grand Junction charter offered two variations for an addition on its K-12 school, one costing $2.5 million and on costing $6.7 million. The board didn’t go for either.

Corridor Community Academy – The 110-student charter in Bennett asked for $5.6 million to build a new school. Board members expressed concerns about enrollment declines and the size of the proposed building. The school won an award last year but had to forfeit it because it couldn’t raise its match.

South Conejos – The district wanted to build a new, $20 million PK-12 school to replace various older buildings. There were concerns about the size of project, leadership turnover in the district and financial management issues. The district is based in Antonito and has about 225 students.

The board got through about half the applications and will tackle the rest on Thursday, including more than a dozen high-dollar bids. The panel is expected to make final selections from the short lists by Friday.

In past years most larger BEST projects were financed through a lease-purchase system known as certificates of participation, on which annual payments are made from state funds and local matches. This year the board expects to finance at least a few large projects with cash.

The board will meet again next month to make final decisions on which larger projects will be financed through lease-purchase agreements and which will receive direct cash grants. The State Board of Education will make the final decision on 2012-13 grants at its August meeting.

The BEST program is nearing the end of the era of several large grants each year. State law limits state payments on lease-purchase agreements to $40 million a year, and the program currently is making payments of about $28 million a year. The 2012-13 grants are expected to increase that to about $34 million a year.

“We have to be really careful this year because we’re coming up against the lease-purchase cap,” said Ted Hughes, director of the state Division of Capital Construction Assistance.