RFSD bond series: Proposed school meant to meet population shifts
In the long list of improvements outlined in Roaring Fork School District‘s $122 million bond issue, the biggest component is a proposed pre-K to eighth-grade school along Highway 82 between Glenwood Springs and Carbondale.
At $34.5 million, the school accounts for more than a quarter of the whole. For many opponents of the bond, the idea of a brand new school outside of town is a sticking point. For the district, it’s the best solution to the urgent problem of overcrowding.
“We’re maxed out now,” Sopris Elementary Principal Kathy Whiting said.
Sopris is already 100 students over capacity, and it’s expected to grow.
The district has been forced to move the preschool off campus and bring in modular classrooms to make room for the growing student body, and has even resorted in the past to using the conference room as a classroom.
“It’d be nice to have everyone in the same building,” said Whiting. “When you put teachers or kids out in a modular, they kind of feel sidelined.”
The crowding also causes traffic to back up all the way to Midland Avenue in the morning.
“With a big number like that, there’s a whole lot of trickle-down effect,” Whiting said. “We love all our kids and we’d hate to lose them, but I think people like the idea of a small, community elementary.”
At 60 students over capacity, Glenwood Springs Middle School is hurting as well. It takes three lunch shifts to shuffle all the students through the cafeteria, and the halls during passing periods are heavily congested.
“Whenever a school can feel like a family, then you’re in a better place,” said Principal Joel Hathaway. “You can more easily realize that goal with a smaller population.”
While some residents fear having a school outside of town might undermine that very sense of community, Hathaway said he’s heard only positive responses from his students.
“I think in general people are excited about it,” he said.
The district doesn’t see expanding the existing schools as a solution.
“Our parents are pretty clear about the fact that they don’t want elementary schools that have 600 kids in them,” Superintendent Diana Sirko explained. “Really about 400 to 500 is where you want your schools to be, so that you can create an environment where students don’t get lost in the shuffle.”
So when the population begin to swell in the years before the recession, RFSD went looking for a new school site.
“We were very concerned about the lack of remaining available sites to serve the Glenwood Springs attendance area, given the projected growth for the area,” Assistant Superintendent Shannon Pelland said.
District officials looked at the lot behind the West Glenwood Mall and at vacant space near Glenwood Meadows before settling on a 35-acre parcel on the east side of the Roaring Fork River near Ironbridge. The district estimates that 300 kids already commute to Glenwood from the proposed service area, with 100 more units approved for construction.
“Choosing this location is a response to development,” school board member Karl Hanlon said. “In a perfect world, all of that would have occurred in the city limits. The reality is that that’s not what people move to the valley for.”
The site is also large enough to easily accommodate a playground and athletic fields on the plateau near the highway, while the school itself would sit closer to the river where the highway noise fades away.
While some feel that the new school will add traffic congestion to Highway 82 or force the district to hire new bus drivers, administrators say it’s actually more efficient. It may not be walkable for most attendees, but for these students neither are the existing schools. As things stand, a Sopris Elementary student who lives in Pinyon Mesa boards the bus at 6:24 a.m. to arrive at school at 7:49. Parents generally opt for the 15-minute drive instead.
“Nobody wants their child to spend an hour and 30 minutes on the bus,” Sirko observed.
And while the district will likely give students — particularly eighth-graders — the chance to stay in Glenwood, it sounds like many parents will be happy to make the change.
“The feedback we’ve gotten is that parents are very excited about the possibility of having a school closer to home,” Pelland said.
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Grace Wesseling is an animal lover, a cheerleader of seven years and another soon-to-be graduate of Bridges High School, class of 2021.