Voters will be asked in November to approve $90 million in bonds for Durango public schools and the three charter schools in town.
The Durango School District 9-R Board of Education unanimously approved a resolution Tuesday to seek voter approval for the issuance of the bonds, which would go for:
Safety and security upgrades at all 9-R schools.Deferred maintenance and capital improvements at all schools.Technology upgrades at all schools, especially bringing fiber-optic links to two schools still using microwave internet links.Demolition and rebuild of Miller Middle School on its current site.Building a new career technical education center for occupations that do not require a college degree.Purchase of new buses.Financial assistance to Animas High School, Mountain Middle School and Juniper Elementary School, Durango’s charter schools that are all looking to either move to new buildings or in Mountain Middle’s case to expand on its current site.Because bonds are expiring that were issued in the early 2000s, if voters pass the $90 million bond, the current 5.776 mill levy would not increase.
If voters reject issuance of the new bonds, the owner of a $400,000 home could see his or her property tax bill go down by $166 a year by 2024, as the old bonds are paid off.
The single costliest project 9-R would like to use the money for would be the rebuild of Miller Middle School, which has an estimated cost of $40 million.
The district’s Long Range Planning Committee met for more than two years to identify needed upgrades within existing schools and take an inventory of deferred maintenance needs.
Superintendent Dan Snowberger said maintenance needs have been deferred since the Great Recession. The district has spent an average of about $1 million on maintenance needs annually, but based on Colorado Department of Education guidelines, a district with the building stock of 9-R should be spending about $5 million annually on maintenance.
School Board President Shere Byrd said in an email that board members recognize the maintenance needs that have built up as tight budgets led to years of deferred maintenance and delays in building needed new capital projects, such as a career technical education center.
She added Durango has high-quality charter schools that also have building needs and growing enrollments.
“It seems like a great opportunity to meet these needs to improve schools for all students in the Durango area, without increasing taxes. As a board, we feel this investment in our schools is in the best interests of our children and the Durango community,” Byrd said.
Tight budgets have even reached down to the district’s 33 school buses, which have an average odometer readings 197,000 miles, with the district’s oldest operating bus notching 277,000 miles.
Passage of the bond would also assure Animas High School would be able to accept $13.7 million in state funds it has been awarded through the BEST grant program to build a permanent school building on the campus of Fort Lewis College.
AHS Head of School Sean Woytek said the minimum local match the school would need to guarantee it receives the $13.7 million in state money would be $4.4 million. If the school is able to obtain $7 million in local money, Woytek said that would allow the building of the new school debt-free.
“We’re definitely pursuing multiple routes for financing,” Woytek said. “I think that’s why we did end up getting funded by the BEST grant program, we had multiple plans for meeting the local portion. Obviously, the bond measure is plan A, that helps us the most.”
Beyond financing the local BEST grant match through the bond, AHS is also exploring getting funding through a rural aid program offered through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Community Facilities Direct Loan & Grant Program.
Woytek said the third, and least palatable option would be to seek conventional financing through a bank loan in association with a capital construction fundraising campaign.
“We share a work-based coordinator with 9-R. We have a lot of different partnerships, and I think it shows in the mill levy we were able to pass in 2016,” Woytek said. “It shows the collaborative relationship we have in the educational realm. And that’s not the case in a lot of places between districts and charters around the nation or in our state.”
Mike Hudson, a co-chairman of 9-R Bond Committee, formed to lead the political campaign to pass the bonds, said the committee will be organizing meetings with community groups – from the Kiwanis Club to business groups to adherents of both the Republican and Democratic parties – to press support for the bonds.
“It’s quite different from four years ago, when funds went to operating expenses and teacher salaries. This is to improve the capital, investment in buildings and infrastructure,” Hudson said. “It will be so important that we explain to all the parents and teachers that every school will get some amount of money. And this will spur building and economic activity in a time when that could really help the economy.”