Steamboat Springs South Routt Superintendent Kelly Reed is trying to be proactive in solving a large and expensive problem with the district's two schools.
During Wednesday's School Board meeting, Reed told board members the coal-fired boilers at the Soroco secondary campus in Oak Creek and at South Routt Elementary School in Yampa need replacing - to the tune of about $2.5 million.
That total is an estimate for replacing the boilers and upgrading the entire heating system.
"I'm worried we are going to be in January and something is going to happen," Reed said. "Very bluntly, capital items, when they go down, are expensive, and if you don't have things in place, that money comes out of the classroom."
There is no compromise to having working boilers, and the sense of urgency in Reed and School Board President Tim Corrigan's voices Wednesday made it clear that finding a way to secure the $2.5 million - be it through grants, district funds or a combination of the two - is a priority.
Corrigan attended a recent meeting that included Reed and Ted Hughes, senior consultant with the Colorado Department of Education's Capital Construction Grant Program. Hughes does not make all decisions on awarding capital grants to districts, but he has influence.
Hughes toured South Routt schools with Reed and Corrigan on May 8.
"As we went for a walk, it became clear that he began to understand how tough a situation we have," Corrigan said. "It's probably been 10 or 15 years since I've been to the basement. I was taken aback. It's like taking a step back in time."
South Routt's coal-operated boilers were installed nearly 35 years ago, and it's believed that South Routt and Silverton are the only public school districts in the state still using coal.
There are no natural gas pipelines running through Yampa or Oak Creek, Reed said, so South Routt's options to heat its schools are coal or propane. Reed said annual heating expenses will increase at least $100,000 if the district switched to propane.
The district has spent the past 18 months trying to find ways to cut energy costs and address capital concerns within the district. Those efforts included an energy audit of the district.
In a best-case scenario, South Routt would receive full funding for the coal-fired boilers from the Department of Education, Reed said. The district already submitted two grant proposals - one for each campus - asking for full funding from the Capital Construction Grant Program.
Hughes estimated he has received 190 applications requesting a total of $90 million. The grant program has $20 million to award.
"I got 170 applications Friday," Hughes said. "Most are from small, rural schools, and they are needy projects just like South Routt, so it makes it difficult."
But the district is moving forward with other funding options, too.
On Wednesday, the School Board unanimously passed a resolution "indicating that the South Routt School District RE-3 hereby intends to consider placing a bond question before the electors of the district to assist in the funding of boiler replacement."
That bond issue would appear on November's ballot - if district officials give the green light.
"This does not mean this is in cement," Reed said. "What this says is that if (the state) will consider granting us this money, we will work and try (to come up with up to half). That's our goodwill move, if you will."
Typically, Hughes said, the grant approval board wants to see applications for which a district is committed to contributing matching funds because it indicates support from the community.
South Routt's applications did not mention the district could or would match funds because the deadline for grant submission was last week. The resolution passed Wednesday.
"I'm going to have to figure out what to do because this is coming in after the fact," Hughes said. "I probably can't let them modify the application at this point. I'll have to take it step by step because they are indicating they would provide funds after the fact. I'm going to have to let the committee know."
South Routt School District voters passed an $8.95 million bond issue in 2000 for capital improvements. The final payment is due December 2020, and the district has paid $1.225 million. The district refinanced the bond last year to get a lower interest rate, so the district can't refinance the current bond again, district business manager Dina Murray reminded board members Wednesday.
Don Diones, the man responsible for overseeing the finances of the district's bond, is looking for a way to secure matching grant money up to half of the $2.5 million for boiler replacement without raising taxes, Reed said, but Reed has not received exact figures to know if that will work.
Corrigan said he does not know if South Routt taxpayers would support another bond issue.
If the district asked voters to help fund heating system replacement and upgrades, the district would know how much - if any - grant money it has received from the state. Hughes expected South Routt to have an idea by July.
"It helps the district if they can go to voters and say they : aren't going to have to pay for the whole thing," Hughes said.
But he added that the committee could decide to approve South Routt's grant or grants as is, meaning the district would receive full funding no matter what. He does not know what will happen.
Neither does Reed. All he knows is the boilers need to be replaced, and he is working hard to make that happen. The fact that people at the state level know South Routt has a need is encouraging, he said. Whether district voters will be turned to for help remains unknown.