Our View: Consensus matters
Steamboat Springs — We are strong proponents of education and supporting a first-rate school system, and we can find many strong attributes in the plan that the Steamboat Springs School Board has placed on the ballot. But we don’t think sufficient time has been taken to answer all the questions voters have about this complex plan. This is a concern we voiced in a April 12 editorial to slow its process down, and our position has not changed.
We’re also troubled that this lack of understanding has led to divisiveness in the community. In the past couple of weeks, we’ve received reports that people on the opposite side of the proposed $92 million school bond issue have threatened the livelihoods of people who have publicly supported the measure that would transform public school buildings in Steamboat Springs. You can see this division in the passion and intensity brought to the discussion in the newspaper’s letter to the editor section and in the reporting of the number of signs that have been vandalized. We interpret these as signs, among others, that there isn’t sufficient community buy-in to embark upon a project of this scope
As a result, we reluctantly recommend that voters reject Referendums 3A and 3B so the community can take more ownership and reach consensus on the best way to move forward with needed new and remodeled school buildings.
The following are among our concerns.
■ We don’t know the cost benefit analysis between locking in $92 million in bonded indebtedness in 2016 versus building new schools gradually while postponing the considerable maintenance and staffing costs of a much larger physical plant.
■ We don’t know whether the feasibility of keeping the high school in downtown Steamboat for the long haul, including traffic impacts and expansion options for the existing campus, has been studied, or if that information has been relayed to the public.
■ It isn’t widely understood by the public that the potential Whistler elementary school site owned by the school district isn’t larger than the existing Soda Creek Elementary site unless new land is purchased to build a parking lot, something that is woefully lacking at Soda Creek. Nor do we think there has been enough research into weighing the option of a West Steamboat elementary school where growth will inevitably occur.
■ Consulting demographer Shannon Bingham acknowledges his population forecasts are good for only three years, and if the community doesn’t get serious about providing workforce housing, projected growth in the pupil population could be “squelched.”
■ Further, the factors driving enrollment growth are typically population growth, employment and live births. The new demographic study reflects just 0.35 percent population growth since 2010, a decline in births beginning in 2009 and flat employment growth since 2004.
■ We don’t think the community has been given the time needed to fully understand the effect a 30 percent increase in school property taxes will have on the local economy.
■ The dynamic between the ongoing influx of out-of-district students, who live in households that don’t contribute tax revenues to the Steamboat Springs School District, and the impact they’ve had on the need for new classrooms isn’t fully understood. School board candidates from South Routt and Hayden nearly unanimously voice concerns about declining enrollment in their school districts, a problem that we think could be exacerbated by expanding capacity in the Steamboat Springs School District.
■ Proponents of 3A and 3B point out construction costs and bond interest rates will only go higher if we put off modernizing all of the schools. However, neither the carrying costs of borrowing now to expand buildings that are currently under capacity, and then maintaining those larger buildings, have been thoroughly communicated to the public.
We have not forgotten that, two decades ago, the district proposed a $41.8 million bond issue for a new high school on the west side of the city. It was rejected by a 2-to-1 margin, only to see a panel of 12 community leaders restart the process. The result was to remodel and add onto the existing high school on Maple Street at a cost of less than $25 million. Our refurbished high school, which had its genesis in a community committee, has served us well ever since.
We think what the residents of this school district want is a plan to expand and modernize our school buildings that came from them and was not imposed on the electorate from the top down without being fully vetted by a wide cross section of the community. Local history tells us that, when that process happens, but perhaps not before it happens, voters will turn out in large numbers.
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