Guest opinion: RFSD responds to questions about bond
October 23, 2015
Following a year-long strategic planning process of community visioning and planning meetings in 2013, the Roaring Fork School District engaged in an eight-month Facilities Master Planning process in 2014. Community stakeholders came together to review existing facilities and define the kinds of environments needed to support learning in our schools. In our many conversations with community members, we have heard some important questions. We hope these responses will help our voters make an informed decision on Nov. 3.
Will building the Eastbank school lead to continued development?
The sprawl that worries so many has already occurred and we are responding to that growth. Currently, more than 300 students live in the area Eastbank school would serve if it opened today. They range from students who live in the mobile-home parks near the CMC turnoff to kids who will live in the single-family developments approved and being built out, such as Pinyon Mesa and Ironbridge. A new development with another 362 residential units in this area has already received preliminary plan approval. With a rapidly improving economy and significant demand for housing, residential development is likely to continue at Eastbank, with or without a school. It is our responsibility to find ways to serve the large and growing number of students living in this area.
Why not bus kids to Carbondale or build within the city limits?
Combined, Crystal River Elementary and Carbondale Middle Schools are currently only 145 students below their maximum capacity. Declining birth rates in Carbondale during the recession may cause a temporary dip in enrollment, but residential growth is expected to increase significantly in five to 10 years. Even with increased in capacity at Ross Montessori School of 50-80 students, Carbondale schools will not have the capacity to absorb the 320-450 students who would be attending the Eastbank school.
Before choosing the Eastbank site, we searched for potential locations throughout Glenwood Springs. None met our needs due to lack of space, distance from the population we need to serve and engineering challenges that result from soil makeup or significant pitch to the land.
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Rather than investing in housing, why not just pay teachers more?
We have consistently raised salaries over the past four years, but under current statutory funding limits, our salaries will never approach the amount required to afford housing in our valley. Eighty-three percent of the district's operating budget supports staff salaries and benefits. In addition to investing directly in salaries, the district prioritizes working conditions, including small class sizes and professional development.
The board of education has opted to use every available tool — save one — to recruit and retain our most crucial asset: our teachers. The only unused tool is to create subsidized rental housing. Salary increases, reduced class size and high quality professional development, combined with affordable housing, create a compelling package for our staff.
How will housing project decisions be made?
The board will establish an affordable housing project committee made up of people with the skills and knowledge to ensure proper due diligence and responsible investments. We will seek the advice of many housing developers in the valley and leverage the experiences of other affordable housing operators in the valley, including the Aspen School District. Any decision to enter into a contract for housing units will be a transparent process in which all residents have an opportunity to provide input.
Why can't RFSD bring forward specific housing projects that voters could determine independently?
History has taught us that the public and private sector development timelines are incompatible. The only way the district can obtain funding for a major capital project like affordable housing is by asking voters to pass a bond. If we were to wait until an opportunity for a specific project arose before seeking the passage of a bond, the window of opportunity for the project would most likely close before the next election cycle. This scenario is exactly what has happened many times over the past 20 years: The district has engaged in numerous conversations about affordable housing, and these projects have been consistently derailed by the lack of immediate, available funding.
Will the district work in partnership with other entities to address the housing struggles for so many in our communities?
We intend to work with any local partners, public or private, willing to collaborate with us in developing affordable housing. If the bond is approved, RFSD will need to work quickly to initiate projects and secure housing for our staff due to rapidly rising land and construction costs. In fact, some conversations are already under way. At present the district is in active conversations about the purchase of 14 units in Willits for staff rental housing. This purchase cannot take place without the passage of the 2015 bond.
What is the justification for other projects beyond affordable housing, GSES and Eastbank?
Many of our buildings need significant upgrades in order to enhance safety, efficiency and functionality. Energy inefficiencies and mechanical failures are draining resources from the classroom. Several schools are overcrowded and classes are being held in inadequate modular facilities. Most schools are not configured for secure entry. School campuses are being used as school bus storage and maintenance sites due to lack of adequate bus facilities.
Our facilities were designed for traditional classroom instruction and do not fit our current focus on creative, active and collaborative learning. The current movement in our schools toward learning — which is hands-on, project-based, collaborative and student-directed — is limited by classrooms that were designed for students spending most of their time sitting quietly at individual desks. As the district completes necessary upgrades, we intend to modernize facilities so they will serve our students for another generation or longer.
These combined challenges formed the basis of the district's decision to pursue the passage of a bond. It will fund projects that ensure the safety, efficiency and effectiveness of our schools, so that all students develop the enduring knowledge, skills and character to thrive in our changing world for decades to come.
Matthew Hamilton and Karl Hanlon are members of the Roaring Fork School District board.