Schools seeking input on buildings

Board learns from past, looks to future in updating facilities

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Cautious not to repeat a past mistake, the Steamboat Springs School Board expects local taxpayers to play a significant role in major facilities decisions facing the district.

A recent analysis of district facilities -- namely its four schools, the George P. Sauer Human Services Center and the district's transportation center -- recommends numerous maintenance and construction projects that could cost the district tens of millions of dollars depending on which recommendations it heeds.

The recommendations in--clude razing and rebuilding an elementary school, and selling or demolishing the historical but dilapidated old high school building.

But School Board members say they aren't willing to make any of those decisions without first hearing from the community and getting a feel for what taxpayers will be willing to fund. It's a discussion the School Board hopes will take place during the year as it seeks to develop a long-range master plan for all of its facilities.

"I think the key piece will be to do several community forums," School Board member Tami Havener said.

The push to involve the community stems from the School Board members' determination not to make the same mistake their predecessors did in the mid-1990s. Then, the district failed to engage the community when it sought a bond to construct a new high school. District officials were stunned when voters turned down the bond initiative, and a series of meetings between the district and its stakeholders were needed before voters felt comfortable approving a bond issue that provided funds for a major renovation of the high school.

The recently completed facilities study was commissioned last year to help the district and the Education Fund Board develop a blueprint for future capital needs. Performed by Colorado Springs-based Christiansen, Reece and Partners, the comprehensive analysis evaluated district facilities based on safety issues, maintenance needs and educational needs.

Basing its findings from in-depth tours of each facility, construction document reviews and interviews and meetings with various district employees and stakeholders, the analysis makes long-term recommendations that include razing and rebuilding Soda Creek Elementary School and adding an addition to Strawberry Park Elementary School. Although the analysis determined most district facilities to be in average to good condition, Christiansen, Reece and Partners declared the Human Services Center -- home of the district's central administration offices -- and Soda Creek Elementary School to be in average to poor condition despite routine maintenance by the facilities department.

"Their condition is generally a function of their age and construction type, and in our opinion, these facilities warrant the most discussion in terms of how best to deal with the district's long-term needs," the report states.

Soda Creek

Soda Creek Elementary School, built in 1955, sits on just less than 5 acres of land in downtown Steamboat. Teachers at the school describe the building's environment as intimate and cozy, but its physical deficiencies have had their effect. Low ceilings and limited space between the ceilings and the roof prevent the district from installing a modern heating and cooling system. Ventilation and cooling is accomplished by opening windows -- but some classrooms don't have any windows. Teachers and students complain about the ventilation in the building, and some blame the lack of a forced-air system for a high frequency of student and staff illness.

Structural concerns forced the district to install support columns in each classroom. And although the large wood beams may seem insignificant to the lay person, teachers say they are obstacles that have a rather large effect on education.

"My whole room is arranged around that pole," veteran Soda Creek teacher Allyson Spear said. In an already small classroom, the support columns force teachers to use their space inefficiently out of a necessity to design a classroom where they constantly can monitor all of their students. And the students need to have visual sight of chalkboards, overhead projectors and any other areas used by their teachers or classmates.

"When I need to address all the kids, there's only one place in the room where I can stand and see all of them," teacher Barb Keenan said.

The facilities analysis also criticizes the general layout of the school, which it describes as inefficient for teacher and classroom collaboration. The building's sprawling layout poses security and supervision concerns and leaves some teachers and staff members feeling isolated from one another, according to the study. Other issues include traffic patterns, staff and parent parking, limited kitchen space and a general lack of storage room.

Soda Creek Principal Judy Harris agrees with many of the study's findings, but she's also quick to emphasize the school will make do with whatever facility it has.

"We're versatile," Harris said. "Were making it work. But could we do an even better job with a different configuration and better efficiency? Yes."

Because of the significant cost of correcting some of the building's major deficiencies, Christiansen, Reece and Partners recommended decommissioning the school and building a new two-story school on the same site. A more efficient design will address the needs of modern education practices, correct the parking and traffic pattern and create more recreation space for children while maintaining a neighborhood school in an ideal downtown location. A new facility is estimated to cost about $17 million.

But building a new school also will pose challenges, namely determining how to provide a good educational atmosphere for Soda Creek students during a one-year construction period.

Old high school

The Human Services Center is the other site identified by the facilities study as demanding attention from the district. Originally constructed in 1920, the Human Services Center includes the historic high school building and a series of add-ons extending in all directions from the original structure.

In addition to the district's central administration offices, the Human Services Center complex houses Stepping Stones, LIFT-UP offices, Steamboat Gymnastics, the Northwest Colorado Board of Cooperative Educational Services and other district functions, such as its central kitchen and an alternative high school.

Despite recent renovations to some areas of the building, including the district's central administration offices, many parts of the complex are in need of serious improvement, the report states.

Some areas, such as the old theater, are "not fit for human occupancy."

The building is inefficient -- up to one-third of it isn't being used, and the number and cost of issues that need to be addressed outweigh the overall benefit of occupying the facility, according to the study.

"Based on our estimated costs to correct the major deficiencies in many parts of the building, the school district is quickly approaching the point where it is feasible to build a new building for approximately the same cost that it will take to repair and upgrade portions of the existing building," according to the study's final report.

With structural safety concerns, fire hazards, handicapped-access compliance issues and a host of other deficiencies, the Human Services Center has exceeded its useful service life, according to the study.

However, deciding what to do with the facility is complicated by the historical value of the old high school building and the ideal location of the complex. Christiansen, Reece and Partners offered the district several recommendations, including renovating the old high school building and selling other parts of the complex to help fund that renovation, or selling the entire site and moving district offices and functions elsewhere.

School Board members, although hesitant to express their feelings about what should be done before hearing from the community, appear unwilling to sell or demolish the historical building.

"I think there's a lot of sentiment for leaving the old high school downtown," board member Pat Gleason said. "It's got certain historical qualities to it."

Board members also have no intention of moving Soda Creek Elementary School from its existing neighborhood location.

Next steps

But how the district -- and the community -- decides to deal with the major facilities issues also will affect how and when the district addresses other facility needs, such as expanding Strawberry Park Elementary School to get rid of its four modular buildings and installing HVAC systems at Strawberry Park Elementary School and Steamboat Springs Middle School. There also are dozens of smaller capital and maintenance needs identified in the study, many of which the district and Fund Board likely will look at working together to address.

The biggest value of the study comes from its identification of all the maintenance and capital needs of the district, Gleason said.

But the district will need to address the largest issues -- Soda Creek and the Human Services Center -- before it truly can formulate a comprehensive long-range facilities plan. And those two issues will have to be discussed among taxpayers before any decision can be reached.

"I think those questions have to be on the table before we know what we can do," Gleason said. "At least now we have something to talk about."

-- To reach Brent Boyer call 871-4234

or e-mail bboyer@steamboatpilot.com

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