The Jeffco School Board took new steps to address school overcrowding in the northwest part of the county at its Jan. 14 regular meeting. The school board’s approval of three motions set the stage to have additional seats ready in the northwest corridor for the 2017-18 school year.
The board’s first motion reversed a decision made by the previous board to move $15 million from the general fund to the capital reserve fund for the construction of a new school in the Candelas area. On Thursday, the board unanimously voted to return the $15 million to the general fund. The board plans to hold the money until spring, when they’ve had time to include the district’s employee associations in the conversation and have more information about the 2016-17 budget from the state.
The Jeffco School Board also approved a motion to move forward with the district’s original recommendation to build a K-8 at Candelas by authorizing district staff to prepare relevant documents for Certificates of Participation (COPs) to finance construction. A second motion that authorized staff to prepare similar documents for COPs to construct phase II of Sierra Elementary School passed on a 4-1 vote, with board member Amanda Stevens voting against the motion.
The votes on the Candelas reconfiguration and on Sierra Phase II were preceded by lengthy discussions among the board members. The board members also discussed both COPs and urgent facility needs throughout Jeffco in a Dec. 17 study session.
The advantage of building a K-8 at Candelas is that there are cost efficiencies both in construction and ongoing costs, explained Chief Operating Officer Steve Bell. Building a K-8 that seats 1000 students saves at least $10 million in construction costs over the cost of building a K-6 and separate middle school building.
In addition, the district realizes additional savings in ongoing costs because they’re not paying for two sets of administrators, two sets of utilities, two janitorial staffs and more. The growth in the area is not just K-6, but also middle school, high school and preschool students, Bell added.
We don’t have discretion over whether growth happens. The growth is happening, and we have to have seats for the students who show up, board member Brad Rupert pointed out. “Just because we don’t have the luxury of cash in our piggy bank doesn’t mean we can avoid building those schools. The seats have to be built.”
“Here’s my worst-case scenario,” Stevens said about COPs. “My worry is that the negative factor will increase and not only will we find ourselves in a situation where we struggle to meet that payment but that we’ve completely tied up those dollars and we’ve taken away a lever for meeting our other deep needs.”
“We have to do right by our kids,” Lasell said. “[Sierra] is dilapidated. It is not appropriate. I know as a board we have to be fiscally responsible and work within the means of our budget. We also made a pledge to what is best for all 86,000 students.”
“We do believe that Sierra Phase II is critical,” Superintendent Dan McMinimee told board members. Completing the second phase of work at the elementary school would also open up additional seats in the growing northwest corridor, and is a move that has been repeatedly supported by the district’s Financial Oversight Committee.
Bell explained that COPs are “lease purchase financing,” which means that the board can use any of the district’s revenue streams to finance COPs. They can be paid off in part or in full at any time. “It’s a very flexible financing tool,” he said.
“COPs are not my first choice to do this,” Stevens said. “My first choice is bonds, my second choice is bonds, and my third choice is bonds.”
“I prefer bonds as well. The reality is that to get a bond will delay this another year. That’s another year of busing middle school kids a long way, probably another seven temps at existing schools,” Rupert said. “Education by double-wide is not my preference for policy for this district.”
“I realize that tonight we will not keep 100 percent of our constituents 100 percent happy. That is not going to happen tonight,” board president Ron Mitchell said. “However, when I thought about this and bottom-lined this, I came down to exactly what I said when I campaigned for this position: I will do my level best to serve the needs of each and everyone of our 86,000 in Jeffco.”
Last spring’s decision to earmark the $15 million by the former school board majority had been a point of contention partly because the amount fell $10 million short of the estimated $25 cost to build one K-8 school. COPs were recommended by the district as a way to start addressing the wider scope of capital needs in northwest Arvada and in other growing areas.
Growth from new developments in the northern portion of the county has been a concern for Jeffco Schools for a year and a half. The district has added more temporary buildings to address overcrowding in schools like West Woods and Meiklejohn Elementary. Current projections suggest that within six years, Jeffco Schools will need as many as 6,800 new seats north of I-70.
When district staff return to the board with designs for Candelas and Sierra Phase II, they will present the board with information about costs and what the debt service will look like. The board will have additional discussion and will vote on those items later this spring. District staff are also expected to discuss an updated facilities master plan and
In other news, the Jeffco School Board approved the hire of a new Chief Communications Officer slated to start work with the district on Jan. 19. Diana Wilson, a parent of three Jeffco students and former Lakewood City Council member, will take over the position that has been vacant for a number of months. Before coming to Jeffco Schools, she worked nine years as the Westminster Fire Department’s Public Information Officer.