Animas High School has been awarded $13.7 million to build a permanent school on the Fort Lewis College campus from the state’s BEST grant program, which will fund 68.5% of the estimated $20 million needed to open the new building.
Getting a project funded in the state’s Building Excellent Schools Today 2020-21 cycle was especially difficult.
Total funded BEST grants dropped to $131.92 million awarded for the current funding cycle compared with $256.53 million funded in 2019-20. Declining tax revenue received after COVID-19 health restrictions were enacted forced state lawmakers to transfer money from the BEST grant program to fund K-12 daily operations.
“We were in the initial list put out in May, which in most years means, ‘Great, you can move forward.’ But we had to wait three more weeks before getting the official word,” said AHS Head of School Sean Woytek. “It’s definitely one of those pinch me moments. We’ve been waiting for this for so long.”
Moving AHS to the FLC campus – the new school will be located south of the Bader-Snyder Residence Halls – will enhance an existing partnership that already includes use of FLC science laboratories and athletic facilities by AHS students.
Locating AHS on the FLC campus gained momentum after FLC President Tom Stritikus expressed interest in exploring the idea, Woytek said.
Stritikus said in a news release, “By bringing an outstanding educational partner to campus, we’re increasing our opportunity for learning and deepening collaborations between local educational entities. At FLC, we’ve long admired the work of AHS, and we know they will increase the vibrancy of our campus.”
FLC Trustee Ellen Roberts also pushed for both schools to explore the idea, and FLC Vice President of Finance and Administration Steve Schwartz was familiar with AHS after having served on its board of directors in the past.
An exploratory committee was formed that included Roberts, Schwartz, Woytek, former FLC Trustee Steve Short, and 9-R Deputy Superintendent Andy Burns, with Stritikus occasionally attending sessions.
“We were just throwing out the idea of, ‘Is this possible, does it make sense for both organizations?’ and eventually it got to the point that it worked within both of our strategic plans,” Woytek said.
Woytek said further discussions and collaboration with FLC will determine what other parts of the college campus AHS will have access to, noting some AHS students already have been using facilities on the hill.
“We use a lot of their campus already. It’s just a lot of times – in terms of transportation and time – that ends up being a barrier for us to use those facilities as much as we’d like. But by being up on their campus, our students can literally walk across the street and take courses if they wanted to,” he said.
Proximity to FLC’s School of Education will also open opportunities for educational and professional development for education majors at FLC and for AHS teachers, Woytek said.
“We already do a lot of events with them, a lot of different workshops. But it’s a lot easier when you can just step out of your office and walk across the street to have conversations versus having to get in the car or, you know, set up an appointment,” he said.
Locating the high school at FLC also gives students who aren’t familiar with college environments an opportunity to see the daily interactions, activity and educational possibilities open on a college campus and perhaps gives students the confidence to pursue college when they might not have viewed that as an option, Woytek said.
AHS is pursuing several paths to fund the remaining $7 million needed to fund a permanent school.
Options for financing the remaining $7 million include allocating some of the $85 million in bonds Durango School District 9-R is considering asking voters to approve in November.
Other options for funding include a private capital campaign for donations and obtaining federal dollars through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Community Facilities Direct Loan & Grant Program, which aids financing essential community facilities in rural areas.
Durango School District 9-R Board of Education President Shere Byrd said the district has included charter schools in bond requests to voters and sees collaborating with charter schools not under 9-R’s umbrella as beneficial to the community.
“This would certainly give us impetus to consider helping Animas High School as a part of the bond because having good schools in Durango, no matter whether they’re charter schools or district schools, is important for the community,” she said.
The addition of AHS funding on a potential bond request to voters in November could also aid the political campaign to get voter approval, Byrd said.
“If you’re a parent and your child went to Animas High School, and you were asked to contribute to the district’s taxes, you might, say, ‘Well, my kid doesn’t go to a district school. So why should I? Why should I vote for the bond?’
“But if we include all schools in the district, and we all benefit, then I think it’s more of a community effort,” Byrd said. “Everybody benefits. And so politically, I think, yeah, it could potentially help people look a little more favorably for a bond if we choose to do that.”
The 9-R Board of Education is expected to decide whether to ask voters to approve $85 million in bonds at its July 14 meeting.
In coming months, AHS will release Requests for Proposals, RFPs, for an owner’s representative to manage the building of the new school and an architect to complete the campus design after seeking input from school staff, students, parents and community members.
AHS expects it will take about a year to transform existing conceptual designs into buildable blueprints.
Construction of AHS’ new campus is expected to take 12 to 24 months. Ideally, the school would like to move from its current location at Twin Buttes to FLC as soon as fall 2022, and no later than fall 2023.