Our View: Getting focused on facilities

Superintendent Donna Howell is right -- the time has come for the Steamboat Springs School Board to put together a plan to repair its aging facilities.

Fixing district facilities is exactly the kind of big-picture issue our School Board members were elected to address, and the development of a facilities plan deserves the board's immediate focus.

The board was scheduled to have an in-depth facilities discussion Tuesday night; however, board members got sidetracked by less pressing items, and it seems little progress was made. Board members suggested gathering more public input about facilities, but Howell said the time had passed for such an effort. "I think if you want to have a steering committee, that should have happened months ago," Howell said. "I really think what we need to do is have (the public) respond to a plan."

It's hard to disagree. It has been a year since the district got the results of its $90,000 facilities assessment. The report identified specific needs and offered numerous recommendations. The district then hosted several public meetings in the fall to gather feedback about its facilities and the assessment. At this point, repeating such efforts seems counterproductive.

What the facilities report showed is that the school district's two most pressing needs are Soda Creek Elementary School and the George P. Sauer Human Services Center -- the sprawling campus on Seventh Street that houses the school administration offices. All of the district's campuses need upgrades.

Soda Creek Elementary is in the worst shape, and replacing that school inevitably must be a part of any facilities plan. That means the big question the board must answer is where to build a new elementary school -- at the existing Soda Creek site, on property the district owns near Whistler Park or at another location. The district also needs to decide what to do with the administration offices. The Seventh Street site is prime real estate, and selling it could help the district finance other parts of its facilities plan. The city also has an interest in the location as part of its future community center plan.

Soda Creek Principal Judy Harris came to Tuesday's meeting hoping to hear how the board planned to address her school. The facilities assessment said Soda Creek has low ceilings, cramped space, inadequate ventilation and structural problems that required the installation of support beams in the middle of most classrooms. "I beseech you to work together on this," Harris said. "Soda Creek needs you to work together to meet the needs of the school."

Harris' request might be wishful thinking -- since the election in the fall, it has been rare for the members of this School Board to be on the same page. But considering that any facilities plan likely will require a bond issue of more than $20 million, the board has to get on the same page if it has any chance of selling a plan to voters.

Judging from past experience, gaining voter approval of bond issues such as this one often takes multiple attempts and a couple of years. The next general election is less than eight months away, and the School Board doesn't plan to take up the facilities matter again until April 3. At that rate, the board is in danger of missing the 2006 election cycle, which means the earliest the district's needs start getting addressed would be 2008. That doesn't have to happen.

There is no magic solution -- there will be a level of negative reaction to any proposal the School Board develops. But board members have the data, and they have the public input. Now, it's time to get serious about making choices and putting a plan before the public.

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