School board chooses Steamboat II over Whistler as site for proposed school
Editor’s note: This story was updated at 5:15 p.m.
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — The Steamboat Springs School Board voted unanimously Monday to build a new school on the district’s 35-acre Steamboat II property instead of the 9.2 acres it owns in the Whistler neighborhood.
The board narrowed the school type to either kindergarten to fourth grade or kindergarten to eighth grade, removing the option of a new middle school, but it tabled the final decision until June 3.
It was also decided to hold off on deciding whether the new school will house a preschool.
A number of people acknowledged the type of school is in many ways linked to the school site.
“The type of school and the site are so tied together, we may need more information before we can make a final decision,” said board member Katy Lee.
While Board President Joey Andrew said he sees the type of school as taking priority over location, he acknowledged the site selection was a hot button issue.
“Let’s not lose site of the real purpose,” Andrew said. “And that is to provide the best education for kids.”
Regarding the Whistler site, board members expressed concerns over the lack of a bridge and road extension from Stone Lane to U.S. Highway 40.
Superintendent Brad Meeks also announced the district will not be purchasing additional acreage from the Mount Werner Water District, which would have provided more space to build a school further from houses and maintain more green space on school district property that has long been utilized as part of the city-owned Whistler Park.
Andrew said he believes the Whistler site remains highly valuable to the district, but that Steamboat II provides more flexibility.
Lee said she agreed Whistler is a great location for a school, but with the need for more sidewalks and a bridge, she said the timing doesn’t line up, and Steamboat II is better for the near term.
Board member Michelle Dover said not having the Mount Werner property changes how she views the situation. Building the Stone Lane bridge isn’t something the district has control over, Dover said, and the Whistler challenges were larger than those faced by the Steamboat II site.
Board member Kelly Latterman said she felt both locations meet the criteria to provide a high quality education for children. She said she thinks the Whistler area could benefit from an elementary school, but she acknowledged the opposition to Whistler and the crucial need for voter support.
Anecdotally, board member Margaret Huron said she first purchased a home in the Whistler neighborhood and now lives in Silver Spur.
“I get to see the issues in both neighborhoods,” Huron said.
There were concerns expressed about the Steamboat II site — namely the unknown cost of water and utility access, traffic and safety given proximity to the highway and transportation. People will have to drive or bus their kids out to Steamboat II, said Robin Schepper, who is a member of the CC4E Committee and advocated for an elementary school on the Whistler site.
“Our schools should be where the kids are,” she said.
Latterman said, at a final community forum, one of the biggest concerns was how people who don’t own cars would access Steamboat II, as it also has limited public bus service.
With the district acquiring 35 more acres adjacent to the Steamboat II property in June, the significant amount of space was cited as a benefit for building flexibility long into the future.
At the forefront, however, was community support for Steamboat II, a key factor needed for voters to pass a bond in November to the tune of about $85 million.
A pre-kindergarten to fourth-grade school is estimated to cost about $61 million, while a pre-kindergarten to eighth-grade school is estimated to cost about $63 million.
A number of people commended the board for abandoning the idea of a school at Whistler — at least for now.
The primary concerns from the Whistler community, who were the most vocal in their opposition, included traffic, environmental impacts, loss of green space and negative effects on houses closest to the site.
While in the minority, another recurring viewpoint has been that demographics don’t show sufficient evidence the district even needs a new school.
Scott Wedel argued that if the Steamboat schools did not take kids from out of district, they would not need a new school at all. Wedel also pointed to projections of declining kindergarten to fifth-grade enrollment — precisely the new space the board is focusing on building.
But Huron said it is not about head count or capacity.
“It’s about an adequate learning environment,” she said.
She listed a number of issues currently faced on district campuses — 20-minute lunches starting at 10:30 a.m., special needs teachers with a cart instead of office space, kids sitting under desks to work in groups and grandparents sitting on the floor for special events.
For 44 years, Steamboat has shown a growth rate of about 2%, Lee said, and “even at a 1% growth rate, I feel comfortable that we will need a new building.”
Teachers also testified to major space issues, especially at Strawberry Park Elementary School.
In terms of school type, board members cited cost as a big consideration, as well as flexibility for the future. They said the most community support was for a new elementary school and secondly, for a new pre-kindergarten or kindergarten to eighth-grade school.
A number of educators addressed the board about the benefits of a kindergarten to eighth-grade school, such as minimizing transitions and a strong sense of community. They also talked about parent choice and offering a new option in terms of grade configuration.
If the board votes to build an new kindergarten to fourth-grade school, then the Strawberry Park campus would turn into a middle school, likely with fifth and sixth grades on one side and seventh and eighth grades on the other. Several people spoke about both the benefits and drawbacks of one large middle school — or a separate “intermediary” and junior high school.
The board said a key component gathered from community forums was the need to think at least 10 or 20 years into the future. But there was also a sense of urgency expressed — given the current capacity issues as well as rapidly rising construction costs.
Meeks noted the uncertainties involved with the potential annexation of West Steamboat and whether or not the district will be gifted a 12-acre piece of land by Brynn Grey Partners.
As the four-and-a-half hour meeting concluded, the board members all thanked the community and various committees for their time, work and input on addressing the challenge over the past several years.
While they were often inundated with feedback, they said they appreciated it as part of the process.
As a community, “We are all like family,” Dover said. “”And like families, we don’t always agree.”
To reach Kari Dequine Harden, call 970-871-4205, email kharden@SteamboatPilot.com or follow her on Twitter @kariharden.
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In a survey earlier this month, 90% of teachers at Steamboat Springs High School that responded said they don’t have faith in the leadership of Principal Rick Elertson, according to the Steamboat Springs Education Association.