It is not too often a school district receives a grant of $2.62 million for capital improvements, but the catch is that the community taxpayers have to match the amount in order to receive the money.
That is the campaign being waged by the Dolores Re-4a school district. Ballot question 3C is considered a one-shot chance for upgrading aging facilities at a fraction of the true costs.
The Building Excellent Schools Today (BEST) grant provides funds to rebuild, repair or replace the state’s most dangerous and needy K-12 facilities. BEST is funded by the Colorado Lottery and school trust lands. The organization recently chose the crumbling Dolores school campus for funding, but only if the community antes up a matching share.
“Only once in a blue moon does an opportunity like this come around,” said Dolores schools Superintendent Scott Cooper. “There are so many districts that need this money so they try to give everyone one shot, and this is our one shot. We’ve seen other (voters in) school districts deny the match, and when that district tries again for the grant they are essentially told they lost their chance.”
Dolores schools score in the top 10 percent academically in the state, Cooper says, a testimonial to an inspired teacher staff, but much of the campus ranks in the bottom 10 percent for safe facilities in the state.
A recent tour highlighted a range of problems at the campus, built in the 1950s.
Cracks in the walls and foundations are widening and some require steel patchwork to keep together. Flat roofs leak onto lab materials, ruining textbooks and giving the rooms a mildewy aroma.
Outdated and downright dangerous science labs are worrisome for school administrators and teachers.
“This lab is designed for 16 students, and often we are forced to cram 24 in here,” said science teacher Dave Hopcia, reaching over to show how the emergency eye-wash has poor pressure.
The cave-like room smells of gas. Poor ventilation systems and no windows in the labs cause gas and CO2 buildup, an obvious health issue. Lab equipment and infrastructure are sub-par as well, Hopcia said, demonstrating how the rusted emergency shut-off requires a crescent wrench and a hefty pull.
“That’s illegal and dangerous. It’s a fire waiting to happen,” observed one tour participant.
“That needs to be a lever any kid can flip down,” Cooper added.
The ceiling in a nearby classroom is coated in black film, the accumulation of paint fumes, exhaust and gases leaking through the ventilation system from a nearby shop.
“Kids get headaches in here, and in the lab you see them get tired from the CO2 buildup,” Hopcia said. “There’s only so much you can do to a relic,” he added.
In the vocational-agricultural shop, high school Principal Brandon Thurston pointed out dated ventilations systems and a leaking roof that drains along the ceiling and down the wall where electrical boxes are located. The water puddles onto the floor and freezes in the winter.
“Electricity and water — not a good combination,” said Thurston.
Locker rooms are cramped and are insufficient to handle sports teams who often practice and have games at the same time. Most of the showers do not work and visiting teams lack access during and after games.
The master plan calls for 21st century technology for the science labs, classrooms and the vocational-agricultural building. It adds, rearranges and upgrades locker rooms to better accommodate girls and boys from all grade levels. The plan would connect all the buildings on campus, improving student monitoring and safety.
Also, additional rooms are added onto a cramped elementary school and connect it to the commons area, an improvement that “allows students more frequent access to the computer lab and library, and they will no longer be wet, cold and locked out of the main elementary building,” reported elementary Principal Sherri Maxwell.
The middle school as well would receive two additional classrooms and more lab space. An upgraded fire-sprinkler system, improved campus drainage and new sidewalks round out the improvements.
In total, the upgrades are estimated to cost $6.09 million. Of that, $2.62 million is paid for by the BEST grant, and the district is asking voters to fund the additional $3.47 million through a 20-year bond. The BEST grant is only paid if the bond is approved by voters; if not, the district gets none of the money.
For an average home in the Dolores district, the additional tax equates to $4.72 per month.
And there is another way to look at it, Cooper said: “People are concerned about the interest, but interest rates are down around 4 percent, so all the interest paid over the 20 years would be almost equal to the 43 percent that the grant is funding, or equivalent to an interest-free loan for 20 years to rebuild our school.”
Cooper explained that an assessment was done to determine if the facilities could be repaired, but it was not worth it.
“It was almost the same cost to get up to code with retrofits as it is to rebuild,” he said. “The important thing is that we will modernize so classrooms and locker rooms are very functional, safety is improved, class size is reduced and learning environments for students and teachers is top notch.”
In tough times, residents can be reluctant to approve additional taxes. But Cooper believes a modernized campus will pay off for the community.
“We have become a school of choice, and our enrollment is up,” Cooper said. “One of the first thing people considering moving here ask is, are they in the Dolores school district, because that is where they hear they should send their kids. When you have a strong school, businesses reap the benefits and home values go up, quality of life goes up.”