District pursues flow of funding

Forums allow questions about Soda Creek's future

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— Determining what to do with Soda Creek Elementary School involves half a century of community heritage and likely more than $20 million in taxpayer support.

How and when to ask Steamboat Springs taxpayers to spend their money will be the topic of discussion at eight upcoming community forums about Soda Creek, an aging facility that Steamboat Springs School District officials have identified as the top priority for renovation or reconstruction.

The Steamboat Springs School District is seeking community input about facility issues at Soda Creek Elementary School.

Meeting schedule:

Tuesday 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. -- George P. Sauer Human Services Center, 325 Seventh St.

4 and 7 p.m. -- Soda Creek Elementary School cafeteria

May 11

10 a.m. and 1 p.m. -- George P. Sauer Human Services Center, 325 Seventh St.

4 and 7 p.m. -- Soda Creek Elementary School cafeteria Call: Anne Muhme, assistant to the superintendent, 879-1530.

The eight forums will be held during two days, beginning Tuesday at Soda Creek and the George P. Sauer Human Services Center on Seventh Street. The second day of forums is May 11.

"I'm hopeful that community members, and our parents in particular, will take advantage of the opportunity," said Soda Creek Principal Judy Harris, who in the past week has hung posters in her school advertising the forums and answered several questions from parents.

The forums are another step in a process most likely leading to a bond measure that eventually will be put before Steamboat voters -- possibly as early as November. The measure would ask for taxpayer dollars to fund renovations at Soda Creek or the construction of a new school at one of three possible sites -- the school's current location, district-owned land in southeast Steamboat off Whistler Road or a 35-acre site in west Steamboat.

Superintendent Donna How-ell said the amount of money requested in a bond measure, which likely would include renovations to Strawberry Park Elementary School, depends on several variables, including the awarding of a gift from the city's Education Fund Board and the duration of the bond.

The most important variable is community opinion.

"I can't make up my mind until hearing from the community," said Tom Miller-Freutel, president of the Steamboat Spr-ings School Board.

Timing the taxes

Deciding when to seek a bond measure involves attempting to determine taxpayers' tolerance for change.

If a measure was placed on the ballot in November, Howell said, taxpayers would feel significantly less financial impact than if a measure was approved in November 2007 or 2008.

In December 2005, the school district finished payments on long-term bonds that funded district needs, including remodeling at Strawberry Park. Steamboat taxpayers have been generating $600,000 in annual revenue for those bonds for more than 10 years, Howell and district financial director Dale Mellor said. Because the payments are finished, taxpayers are scheduled to see relief next year -- unless they approve a new bond for the elementary schools in November.

Howell said asking Steam-boat residents to continue a tax they already are paying could be easier than asking for a new increase down the road.

"If we don't put anything on the ballot this November, the taxes will go down," Howell said. "Once taxes go down, it becomes more difficult to raise them again. To put something on the ballot (this year) potentially could minimize the impact for taxpayers."

But the payment discussion may be irrelevant -- Howell and Miller-Freutel said putting a measure on this year's ballot is unlikely.

"I don't see it happening this November," Miller-Freutel said Friday. "We just don't have enough time to get everything in a row."

If the community expresses a clear opinion at the upcoming forums, and if the School Board develops a facilities plan by summer, district officials would form a citizens committee to organize and fund a campaign for the ballot measure.

"Once the board makes a decision to put an item on the ballot, the district can no longer use human or financial resources towards that campaign," Howell said. "The district cannot spend any money on the campaign."

Routt County Clerk and Re--corder Kay Weinland said the school district has until Sept. 11 to certify a bond measure for November's ballot, but Miller-Freutel said a bond issue of this size should not be rushed.

"I just don't think that's something very responsible to the community, with that size of a financial liability," Miller-Freutel said.

Howell said although it's not probable, she "doesn't want to rule out" a measure on this year's ballot.

Where the kids are

Talk at Tuesday's forums likely will focus on school location instead of taxes.

At an April 3 meeting of the Steamboat Springs School Board, district facilities director Rick Denney presented cost estimates for four options involving Soda Creek: constructing a new school on the current 4.5-acre site for $18.2 million; extensively renovating the school for $12 million; building a new school on a 9.2-acre site near Whistler Road and Meadow Lane for $16.9 million; or choosing not to renovate.

The school district also owns 35.3 acres of Lee Trust land in west Steamboat. Although Howell and Rick Denney have said that land is being saved for a possible third elementary school considering Steamboat's projected growth, the School Board has not ruled out using that land for a new school right away.

"I don't think, we as a district, have given that enough exploration," Miller-Freutel said about west Steamboat.

Board member Jeff Troeger has asked that use of the Lee Trust land be a part of upcoming discussions.

According to a 2005 demographic analysis of the Steamboat area, west Steamboat houses less than one-tenth of the students attending public schools. The study showed that 482 students live in the Mount Werner and Fish Creek Falls areas, 434 students live in or just west of Old Town, 267 students live in southeast Steamboat and 125 students live in west Steamboat communities, including Steamboat II and Heritage Park.

"Right now, the least amount of our students are coming from the west end," Howell said, adding that research indicates an ideal elementary school would accommodate 400 students.

Soda Creek has nearly 400 students, and Strawberry Park has about 450.

Miller-Freutel said that becauset the two schools already are at optimal size and with projected growth, a third elementary school may be needed in coming years, regardless of what is done with Soda Creek.

Harris said she is keeping an open mind about the options for her school, and she plans to be busy Tuesday.

"I'm hoping to be at all of the forums," Harris said. "That's my job -- hearing the bigger picture about Soda Creek and representing the community, our parents, students and staff the best I can."

Harris said renovations at Soda Creek, or a new school, would eliminate space constraints that have led to classes being conducted in hallways and students sitting behind view-obstructing pillars in classrooms.

"I think, for me, the most significant needs are those that directly impact the kids," she said.

-- To reach Mike Lawrence, call 871-4203 or e-mail mlawrence@steamboatpilot.com

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