Not a wise choice

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Steamboat Springs School District administrators are barking up the wrong tree by floating the idea of a new bond issue for capital improvements. Last week, the district's administrative team made recommendations for the 2003-04 school year to the Education Fund Board, which oversees the half-cent sales tax for education. The administrative team surprised the board by recommending that none of the sales tax funds be used for capital in the coming year.

Instead, the administrative team recommended spending $685,000 on technology, including new hardware and a network upgrade, and about $1.4 million on educational excellence, including small class sizes and pay for performance. That accounted for all of the $2.1 million the education sales tax is expected to raise, leaving nothing for capital. The administrative team made its recommendations even though facilities director Rick Denney outlined more than $8 million in deferred capital needs in the district. Among the most pressing and most expensive:

n An expansion of the middle school that includes adding classrooms and enlarging the cafeteria.

n The removal of columns from classrooms and an upgrade of the ventilation system at Soda Creek Elementary School.

n Adding a cafeteria and multipurpose room at Strawberry Park Elementary School.

The administrative team said the technology and educational excellence programs are critical and should not be cut. Instead, the team suggested looking at funding alternatives to meet the district's capital needs, including a bond issue.

"There is a significant amount of items that might make a very sellable bond," Superintendent Cyndy Simms said. "We don't want to dis' the need, we just want to suggest other sources of revenue."

But while we follow Simms' logic, her timing is off. The community has been very supportive of school district initiatives in recent years, approving the half-cent sales tax, the bond issue for improvements to the high school and most recently, a tax increase to support teacher pay raises. With the county and city also looking at tax measures in the coming year, the district would be pushing its luck by seeking one as well.

It's important to note the administration's recommendations to the Fund Board are just that. Ultimately, the Fund Board must choose how to spend the tax revenues and the Steamboat Springs School Board must accept those funds.

The truth is taxpayers have charged the district with using the half-cent sales tax to meet more needs than there are funds available. That means the Fund Board faces hard choices. Smaller class sizes or new roofs? A network upgrade or classroom expansions? Pay-for-performance bonuses or a new ventilation system at Soda Creek?

The Fund Board must set priorities and make tough decisions, but that's how it should be when it comes to spending tax dollars. Besides, such a process is preferable to spending all of the funds in two areas and asking taxpayers to bail the district out for the third.

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