Steamboat Springs In the dark recesses of Soroco High School, Superintendent Kelly Reed said the dirty, coal-fired boilers that heat the high school and Soroco Middle School are crumbling.
"These things have outlived their lifespan," Reed said Thursday as he picked up a cast-iron pipe that feeds coal to the boilers. The pipe, which was replaced in May, is so badly corroded that much of the cheap, dirty fossil fuel destined for the furnace ends up on the floor.
"(The boilers) were installed in 1970, and at that point, they were already 20-year-old architecture," he said. "So they are about a 50-year-old design, with 40-year usage."
Reed met with the South Routt School Board on Thursday night to discuss how to best present to voters a ballot initiative asking for funds to replace the aging heating system.
"I actually started looking into district needs energy-wise and systems-wise two years ago," said Reed, who invited John Canfield from the Colorado Department of Energy to tour district schools to identify energy needs.
"Actually, he's the one who put me on to how badly we needed the boilers replaced," he said. "I knew they were old, but I didn't realize how badly they had deteriorated."
Replacing the boilers
In July, the district received a $1.57 million Capital Construction Grant from the Colorado Department of Education toward replacing the boilers at the high school and middle school, along with boilers at South Routt Elementary School in Yampa. The grant is contingent upon the district raising an additional $1.57 million in matching funds, which would be raised through the purchase of bonds.
"Our first thought was that we'd replace the existing coal boilers with new, state-of-the-art coal boilers," he said. "The more we looked into it, everything pointed toward ground-source (heating)."
Below the frost line, the ground maintains a constant temperature of about 55 degrees throughout the year. Ground-source heat pumps are used in conjunction with closed-loop systems in which liquid coolant is pumped through underground pipes. The warmer temperature is then absorbed by the liquid within the pipes after which the liquid is pumped to the surface to a heat pump.
"You supplement this 55 degrees with a propane heater," Reed said. "Then in the summer, you have 55-degree cool air coming in."
He said the benefits of ground-source heating are three-fold: It's a clean energy source, the cost of maintaining a ground-source system is cheaper and less time-consuming than a coal-fired one and the technology has the potential to heat the schools for the next 40 years with minimal upkeep.
Reed stressed that replacing the boiler system is the most pressing concern in the district.
"Case being, had our boiler been inoperable in January as it was in May, it would have forced us to shut down the school until it would be repaired," he said. "In essence, what we are looking at is that we have a very old system that we cannot rely upon. We have been patching it for years, and it is time to replace it. We are hoping it will hold together for another year."
If approved by voters, Reed said work would begin in the spring and be finished before the 2008-09 school year.
Mill levy override
In addition to the purchase of bonds to replace the boilers, the district also is asking the public for permission for a mill levy override of three mills to generate an additional $360,000 per year.
Reed noted that the net mill increase would be one mill if voters also approve the bond purchase to replace the boilers. The district would get a more favorable rate on bonds purchased in 1997 with the additional bond purchase.
"Over the last 15 years, a number of factors have led to operation costs significantly higher than revenues," said Reed, who stressed that for the average Oak Creek homeowner, one mill equates to an additional $18 a year in property taxes. "We cannot continue to operate at our present level."
Enrollment in the district has decreased from a high of 450 students in 1997 to a low of 408 in 2005. This loss of 42 students equates to about $344,400 of lost revenue that would have come from the Department of Education.
Reed said the decline in revenue led to the gradual dismissal of six teachers, five paraprofessionals and a reduction in the number of extracurricular activities.
Medical expenses also have increased as much as 18 percent per year, and fuel costs have nearly doubled.
The board examined the wording of the ballot initiatives Thursday, tweaking the language and debating how best to present them to voters.
"We need to be careful with the wording because it's what the taxpayers will hold our feet to the fire to," said School Board President Tim Corrigan. "All we need to do is tell them the truth. This isn't a sales job. People will come to bat if they have all the information."
The School Board has planned five community meetings to discuss the ballot initiatives with the public, and a non-profit has been created, called "Improve Soroco Schools," to raise funds for a marketing campaign.
"We need to present this to voters from a positive angle," Corrigan said. "We shouldn't go negative and say the schools are a mess, because they are not. We have a good little school district."
- To reach Mike McCollum, call 871-4208
or e-mail email@example.com