Facing serious hazards including sewer backups, vehicle crashes and security concerns, Alsup Elementary is among a select group of schools to win a state grant for school buildings.
The State Board of Education this week is expected to approve a $19.6 million grant for the school’s replacement. Then the district, Adams 14, will have to provide $14.2 million, likely from a combination of savings and new debt, to cover the rest of the reconstruction cost.
“We’re really excited about getting a new school,” said Melinda Rios, a parent of two students, including one who will be a fifth grader at Alsup this fall and a middle-schooler. Her children will not get to enjoy the new school, but her niece will. “The principal had done a good job from the beginning of asking the parents what we felt we could change and what we wanted. We were kind of on the same page.”
Construction of the new building is expected to start later this year for a possible opening in 2020. The district’s challenge will be to prevent the district’s internal turmoil and constant turnover of top officials from stalling the project.
Gionni Thompson, who led the work on the grant request and the projects, suddenly left the position last week. Although he has not been replaced, district officials said they have handed off the project to another staff member.
District officials were excited about the grant, not just for the serious problems it would help address at Alsup, but because the project is expected to become a catalyst for more school renovations in coming years.
The idea is that Alsup’s replacement would be built on the former site of Adams City High School less than a mile south. Alsup’s current site, just blocks away from a new RTD commuter rail line and Park-N-Ride station, is expected to rise in value, meaning its sale will help Adams 14 pay for its next project: moving Adams City Middle School to share the new campus with Alsup. The freed-up space from the middle school could then also be sold to finance a future project.
Thompson, formerly the district’s chief operating officer, said last week that the impact of the grant for Adams 14 was unique.
“This really changes the forecast for Adams 14,” Thompson said. “Without this grant we wouldn’t have been able to build this momentum. And to do it without passing a bond, this really shows the community we are making every effort possible to make sure we are building facilities that our kids and their kids deserve.”
Just before Thompson was scheduled to meet with state officials to help plan financing for the new Alsup, he was removed from his position. The reasons are unclear, as the district refused to comment.
State funding for Alsup will come from its BEST grants, which funnel a portion of lottery and marijuana revenues to struggling school districts to help address facilities problems. The grant requires school districts to pay for a portion of the project.
About half of Adams 14’s share will come from the district’s savings. Thompson had said the district is planning to get the remaining $7 million by issuing certificates of participation, or COPs, which are a government financing mechanism used by school districts and other government bodies to pay for construction.
More commonly, school districts fund capital improvements with voter-approved bonds. But three times in the past eight years Adams 14 voters have rejected bond measures, so the largely low-income community will instead rely on COPs, whose debt will be paid through the general fund.
District officials said Tuesday the project remains on track despite Thompson’s departure.
Although several schools in Adams 14 need replacement, safety concerns lifted Alsup to the top of the list. The sewage backups have forced the school to close several times. Recently, an Amber Alert intensified campus concerns.
Principal Mike Abdale explained that a sibling and a parent of a third-grader at Alsup were kidnapped from their home in Commerce City in August. After an Amber Alert was issued, Alsup employees realized that they had seen the suspect walking on campus days earlier.
“We do not know his intent for being in the building, but we believe he was there for the child,” Abdale said. “The video showed that he walked in, took a drink of water, and walked out of the building. Nothing occurred on that day, and he had no contact with the child or any other students at any point.”
But the incident was a reminder that the school’s design makes security a challenge, because the main office is far from the main entrance. Although staff try to keep an eye on the doors, it is not enough, the principal said.
“A person could enter the building without being seen because of the crowds, and that is what happened in this case,” Abdale said. “We have no way of seeing if a person walks down the main hall instead of heading to the office.”
Outside, the grant application describes other safety issues caused by the placement of the building and the lack of a clear, designated place to drop off students. It mentions students hit by vehicles, dangerous street crossings, auto crashes, “near misses of students,” and an increase in traffic from commercial trucks.
Officials said it takes nearly all school staff to stand outside before and after school to try to keep kids safe. The application also states the principal has at times had to call the police department to help patrol and to handle road rage.
Parent Rios said that is one of the big concerns she has observed at Alsup.
“The drop-off is kind of hectic,” Rios said. “Some parents just let their kids jump out of the car, which I’m not a fan of. That is definitely an issue.”
Thompson has said that he worried problems will get worse as RTD completes the new N Line commuter rail, which will have tracks just a few blocks from Alsup. Along with that project, Commerce City is planning to widen 72nd Avenue, where Alsup sits, from two lanes to four lanes later this year.
Thompson said some students regularly cross 72nd Avenue, especially to help siblings, from Alsup to Adams City Middle School, and that as the street widens, the danger will increase. In a letter, the city manager for Commerce City agreed with those safety concerns.
RTD officials said last week they were not aware of the district’s safety concerns, but said that as a regular part of their projects, they are scheduled to start a safety campaign this fall for schools along the N Line to teach students how to be safe near buses and tracks.
“Our safety demonstrations include using a mock railroad crossing with bells, flashing lights, and arms that go down when a train is approaching,” said Lisa Trujillo, RTD’s manager of project outreach.
Thompson said a parent committee was being considered to help guide the next parts of the project and the transition of the school.