by Sally Scott Moore
Following months of preparation, evaluations, networking and intense planning, Hinsdale County School Board personally followed their grant application with a pithy and succinct presentation to the Build Excellent Schools Today (BEST) board members in Denver last Wednesday, May 16.
School Board President Phil Virden made the two- minute presentation to the nine-member board during BEST’s two-day marathon among 33 other Colorado school districts seeking funding.
The 30 minutes of presentation and questioning were followed by an immediate BEST panel vote awarding Lake City the all-important reduced-match waiver. This action drops the Hinsdale County grant match from 58 percent to 30 percent of the $13,490,690 proposed facility project or slightly more than $4 million.
Two days later, BEST formally announced Hinsdale County School District as a recipient of one of their coveted annual grants.
Attending the proceedings with Virden were Hinsdale School Superintendent Dr. Leslie Nichols and her successor, Rebecca Hall; Hinsdale School Board members Tara Hardy and Rob Hudgeons; and RTA architect Brian Calhoun. Anna Fitzer, BEST Regional Program Manager, also joined the panel during the presentation. Hinsdale County School District was scheduled for their presentation in the afternoon, allowing the delegation to drive from Lake City early Wednesday morning to the Jefferson County Educational Administration building for the critical proceedings.
In his presentation, Virden greeted the BEST board, introduced his colleagues and started off his presentation by noting Hinsdale County is the most remote, isolated county in the contiguous United States.
“Our current facility is in urgent demand of addressing safety and health needs. Some of these needs are for a controlled entrance with good sight-lines, adequate corridors for safe evacuation, improved security for our exterior doors, and the ability to see our entire playground.”
Virden noted other school needs as “a public-address system for emergency communications, and to enhance fire safety, a sprinkler system, gas shutoff valves and improved electrical corrections. We need adequate bathroom facilities and storage for physical education supplies, as well as a designated nurse’s station.”
“Added to our main facility requests is the fact that we are the only school district in Colorado without a gymnasium.” Virden enumerated the safety and security problems generated by the lack of an on-site gymnasium. “Currently, PE classes and school athletic practices are held in the Town of Lake City’s Armory facility which is nearly a half-mile away from the school.”
“On the students’ walk to the Armory, they encounter four street intersections, increased traffic during the tourism season, and icy and snowy conditions in the winter months.”
Virden enumerated past issues with this historic off-campus problem. “We have even had to take measures to reroute kindergartners and all students due to the presence, at times, of mountain lions, bears and other wildlife.”
“Recently,” he added, “we even had a bear enter one of our classrooms.”
Continuing, Virden told the BEST board, “The Armory is dangerously congested for the student physical education activities. And, since we lease the facility from the Town, we have no control of safety and security measures with this off-site building.”
Ending on a positive note, Virden stated, “Amazingly, our school has performed well, given our challenging circumstances. We have been accredited with distinction for the past nine years. However, we can only maintain this level of excellence with facilities that are safe and secure for today and into the future.”
The BEST grant application had been reviewed and scored by the BEST board members prior to Virden’s presentation. Imbedded in the hefty application packet are additional statistics, current needs and deficits with the existing facility substantiating BEST grant eligibility. Also detailed are plans for the renovation and square footage additions which would substantially improve conditions on what has been the “school site” since 1880.
Before questions to the Hinsdale School delegation, Board Chair Tim Reed took time to thank Virden for the “wonderful notes” which Lake City kindergartners sent to him in support of the project.
BEST board member Scott Stevens, an engineer, began the questioning but added that he had been charmed by the unique “Goldie Locks quality” of the Lake City bear story in Virden’s presentation.
Panelist Cyndi Wright, a school facilities planning specialist, expressed concerns that projected numbers were too conservative for a combination renovation- build effectively doubling the square footage in a rural, mountainous area. In response to these concerns, Architect Brian Calhoun stated that they had worked hard to economically use as much of the old building as they could.
He also noted three project estimates on the work had been solicited, and he was confident with the estimated total of nearly $13.5-million.
Denise Pearson, a school facilities planner and BEST board member, quizzed Calhoun on his comfort level with the 17 percent contingency budgeted, given the locale and complexity of the build. She asserted that additional funding requests were unlikely in the event the project hits unexpected cost overruns.
Tara Hardy fielded queries about community support of the proposed school project. “As the only school in the district, everyone understands the importance of maintaining a standard of excellence.” She noted that a recent survey issued to all registered voters saw a 30 percent return rate and the results revealed a 78 percent approval rating for the school support.
Additional statistical quirks in Hinsdale County reveal that of the 1,331 single family homes, 77 percent are vacant, owned by second homeowners who do not vote in Lake City. Hardy added as an important demographic, a majority of registered voters in Hinsdale County are retired and live on fixed incomes. This was a primary factor Hardy attributed to the failure of the proposed $5.9-million gymnasium bond issue, presented to the voters with no grant funding, which failed at the ballot box several years ago.
Responding to Hardy, BEST member Ken Haptonstall noted, “There is a significant difference between overall school support and support for a bond issue which would raise taxes on both property and business owners.”
“Because we have never had a gymnasium,” Virden stated, “we have never been able to host home games, which increases local community support among those who don’t have children in the school system.”
Dr. Leslie Nichols optimistically added, “I am confident the momentum from the BEST grant and the waiver would carry forward to the bond this time.”
BEST member Margi Ammon expressed her pick up and drop off congestion concerns based on the plans. Rob Hudgeons noted that with the projected changes, the drop off will be moved from the current Silver Street location — which is combined with low visibility and parking lot congestion — to the new entrance on the south side of the school campus.
He assured the board that traffic congestion in Lake City is only a problem in the summer months. Nichols added, “We are also unique in that we have no school bus traffic.”
Before concluding the BEST board statements, Scott Sherman offered advice, “You are very remote. Based on past experience, let me just strongly suggest because of your remote, rural location that you make sure you really know how to run the mechanicals. Maintain them well. It will save you headaches down the road.”
BEST Vice Chair Kathy Gebhardt, who attended the initial Lake City public informational forum regarding the new facility and BEST grant, said, “ We want to thank you for the impressive level of response throughout your applications.”
Immediately following their questioning of the RTA architect and Hinsdale County School Board members, BEST board membership voted unanimously to place Hinsdale County School District on the short list for consideration for a grant.
Cheers and jubilation among students and staff at the school greeted the Friday morning, May 18, notification that the school district had received the BEST grant.
In a joyful email sent out Friday morning, School Superintendent Dr. Leslie Nichols issued the news to the community at large, “I’m beside myself with excitement to announce that we have been awarded the BEST grant for our school addition/renovation!! Our waiver application was also approved to reduce our match amount from 58 percent to 30 percent, a key piece to our funding strategy.”
“Our grant award is for $9,443,483.” Nichols continued, “The match we will work toward with capital reserves, fundraising, other funding sources, and a bond this November, is $4,047,207.”
“We are so excited! And now the work begins!”
“Thank you all for great community input sessions and all of your support. We look forward to even more input and support as this process continues,” she exclaimed in her concluding remark.
As Dr. Nichols noted, a bond issue to fund the match will now proceed to county-wide election this fall. Should the bond issue fail, the BEST grant funding would be forfeited back to the Colorado Board of Education BEST program.
by Sally Scott Moore