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BEST board makes “brutal” choices

Six rural districts with crumbling schools have jumped the first hurdle toward getting new buildings with the help of funding from the state’s Building Excellent Schools Today program.

Ten districts and schools weren’t so lucky. They didn’t make the cut for major grants from a program that has limited funds and also is nearing the limit of what it can spend every year.

After the Capital Construction Assistance Board took its final vote Tuesday afternoon, chair Dave Van Sant said, “That was brutal.”

He was reflecting on the dilemma the board has faced every year since the BEST program was created in 2008 – too many worthy projects and not enough funding.

Now the program is facing new limits on what it can do for the state’s schools. The BEST law limits the program to $40 million a year in payments on the lease-purchase agreements that are used to pay for larger projects such as new schools. (Districts also contribute funds from bond issues to make those payments.)

Payments on the 2013-14 projects will put the program at the $40 million, which means that in coming years the construction board will be making primarily cash grants and likely doing fewer large projects.

Here are the projects that survived this year’s selection process, in the priority order set by the board. (Dollar amounts are total project cost, which include various combinations of state and local funds.)

  • Creede – $16.1 million for a new PK-12 school to replace a log school in this isolated, 78-student district in the San Juan Mountains.
  • Kim – $10.6 million for a major renovation and addition to the PK-12 school in this 51-student district in the state’s far southeastern corner.
  • Limon – $25 million for a new PK-12 school to serve this 447-student district along Interstate 70 on the central plains.
  • Moffat – $16.7 million to build a new PK-12 school in this San Luis Valley district that serves 210 students.
  • Haxtun – $6.6 million to renovate and add to a K-12 school for this 331-student district in the northeastern corner of the state.
  • South Conejos – $19.5 million to replace a PK-12 school in this San Luis Valley district of 208 students.

Total cost of the projects is $94.6 million, including $64.1 million in state funds and $30.5 million in local matches.

Two other projects, a $34.6 million middle school in Fort Morgan and a $12.9 million project to build a new school for the Ross Montessori Charter in Carbondale, were named as alternates. Alternates can become eligible for funding if a finalist fails to raise its matching funds, as has happened in the past when voters defeated bond issues. The six finalists all will need to pass bond issues in November.

The board faced a dilemma because South Conejos and Fort Morgan were tied in the final rankings. The board took a separate vote, which came out 6-1 for South Conejos. (Two members recused themselves because of connections to the two districts.)

Applicants that didn’t make the cut included the Edison district east of Colorado Springs, the Animas High School charter in Durango, Independence Academy charter in Grand Junction, Montrose, Widefield and Aurora. Large applications from two charters, the New America School in Adams County and AZL Academy in Aurora, were eliminated on Tuesday.

Cost of the original list facing the board was about $230 million.

The board also approved a separate list of 24 smaller cash-funded projects, including roof repairs, new boilers, safety upgrades and other repairs. Those projects total $15,7 million, $9 million from the state and $6.6 million from local matches. (See the full list of recommended grants here.)

The two lists now go to the State Board of Education, which will vote on them at its June meeting. After that the legislative Capital Development Committee will review the large-projects list. The construction board will meet in November to fine-tune the list if any of the finalists fail to pass bond issues.

The BEST selection process is unique in that the construction board has a certain amount of discretion in making its recommendations and because it makes its decisions request-by-request in an open meeting where applicants are allowed to make brief in-person pitches to the board, in addition to the voluminous applications they filed months ago.

BEST applications are evaluated on a complicated set of criteria including building conditions and suitability for educational uses, cost and local financial ability to provide matches, among other factors.

The board uses a complicated process to cull the applicants. Projects require a majority roll-call vote to advance to a short list, but projects die if they don’t gain a majority, don’t get a second or fail to spark a motion at all.

Members then individually rank projects for the two short lists. Those rankings are combined to create priority lists for cash grants and for larger projects. The cutoff points for the two lists are determined by how much money the board has to spend.

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