I’m not going to tell you how to vote when it comes to the two local school bond initiatives that will be on the ballot in the Nov. 4 general election.
But I will tell you this, you owe it to yourself to make an informed decision.
I don’t go along with some of my know-it-all-brethren who like to tell people how to vote. I used to think it was the obligation of the print media to use its editorial page to try and dictate public opinion. But I wasn’t always comfortable in that role. It made it seem like the editorial writer was setting himself or herself up as having all of the answers, as being smarter than everybody else.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned after being in this business for more than 25 years, it is there are people out there who are a heck of a lot smarter than me.
If you want my opinion, I’ll give it to you. I’ll even offer my opinion if you don’t want it. But just because my opinion appears in print, it doesn’t mean I’m suggesting you should agree with me, or that my opinion is better than yours. What you think, what you believe, is up to you.
However, I believe the newspaper does play a role, an important one, in informing people about the issues. We’ve reported extensively on the school bond initiatives. We’ve printed people’s letters to the editor about the school proposals. We’ve published advertising messages encouraging support of the school initiatives, paid for by those who back the plans.
In my view, there’s a lot at stake here.
Something eventually will have to be done with the two towns’ schools, whether it’s now or in the future. I’ve toured schools in both districts. I’ve seen up close what the needs are. And they are real.
School administrators and board members, I don’t believe, have exaggerated the seriousness of the situation. They have made do, for a lot of years, with what they have had to work with. That doesn’t mean they have always made the right decisions. In Rangely, for example, I’ve heard people who still question the handling of the Early Education Center, which was vacated by the school district in 2004 and is now leased to private businesses.
And in Meeker, I’ve heard quite a bit of concern about what would happen with the current elementary school in the event a new one was built. There’s been talk the county would consider building a justice center — a fancy name for a jail — on the site of the old grade school.
The town of Meeker actually owns the site the elementary school sits on, and leases it to the school district for a $1 year. Under the agreement, if the building is not used as a school, ownership of the building goes back to the town. The county has expressed an interest in the site, if it were to become available, which does make sense, given its proximity to the courthouse, located across the street. County Administrator Pat Hooker has also said the county would try to reuse the sandstone from the elementary school, which would be a nice touch.
However, recently, I’ve heard talk that Colorado Northwestern Community College would be interested in expanding into the elementary school, if it became available. The college, with its main campus in Rangely, has a satellite branch in Meeker, at 345 Sixth St.
At this point, the town of Meeker isn’t saying much, other than to say it will consider all possibilities. The CNCC option, it seems, at least based on concerns I’ve heard from people about a jail, uh, I mean, justice center, would seem the more palatable choice.
“Actually, it is in the embryo stage,” said Town Administrator Sharon Day of the CNCC option. “It is an opportunity everybody would like to look at. There has been an inquiry. How far we go, it’s hard to say, until we really know what is happening (with the bond issue). The (town) board will be open to exploring possibilities. As this point, the board just wants to make sure the community understands they will be open to any opportunities. It will be a very public process, so people will have a chance for input.”
Whatever happens with the current elementary school, it needs to be done right. The site is a prime location, located on Main Street, close to the downtown retail district, and easily accessible and visible from Market Street or Highway 13, one block to the south.
Back to the school bond initiatives. Yes, they are expensive. Very expensive. We’re talking about a lot of money — $24 million in Meeker, and $15 million in Rangely.
But it will cost even more, much more, the longer it is put off, because construction costs are only going to continue to rise. Tim Webber, director of the Rangely Recreation Center, which recently launched a $7 million remodeling of its 30-year-old building, told me from the time he first started looking into the numbers to when the project actually started, construction costs had quadrupled.
There was a story in Sunday’s Grand Junction Sentinel about the considerably higher construction costs on the Western Slope, compared to other parts of the country.
The front-page example of a proposed grade school in Grand Junction had a project cost of $14.5 million on a 48,000 to 49,000 square foot building, at a cost per square foot of $295 to $302.
How does that compare with the Meeker proposal? Of the $24 million bond initiative, nearly $17.4 million is earmarked for the new elementary school. The balance of the $24 million would go toward improvements at the middle school and high school, in areas such as heating and ventilation. The size of the new grade school would be 69,598 feet, with a per-square-foot cost of $250.
“One and a half years ago, we were talking about $175 a square foot, and now we’re talking $250 a square foot,” said Meeker School Board President Mary Strang. “That’s a 40 percent increase.”
Both the Meeker and Rangely school projects come with hefty price tags. And, understandably, given the shaky economic climate, people are nervous. According to the numbers school officials are using, when you break it down, here’s how it works out: In Rangely, on a house valued at $200,000, property taxes would increase almost $41 a year. In Meeker, the average homeowner (of a $185,000 house) is estimated to see a tax increase of $90.
I have to admit, I’m not a business owner, nor am I homeowner. So, personally, I won’t be directly affected if the school bond issues are approved. But if those increased property taxes are passed on, then we will all be affected one way or another, at least indirectly.
So, yes, business owners and homeowners will be directly impacted, but the vast majority of the bond repayment, however, will be paid by the energy companies in Rio Blanco County. Upwards of 80 percent, in fact. That’s a huge consideration in all of this.
There’s another factor, the way I see it. What will this election say about our communities, if we approve or vote down the school bond issues? I think it will make a strong statement, one way or the other. I don’t have any children in the school system here, but I believe the needs at the schools are genuine. And I believe it’s important to make the investment to keep our schools in tip-top shape. They don’t have to be palaces, but functional, efficient and even state of the art. Whether these specific plans put forward by the two school districts in the county are the best possible options, that’s up to voters to decide.
But don’t take my word for it. Talk to people who are knowledgeable about the projects. Visit with a school board member. Spend some time reading up on the plans. Better yet, take a tour of the schools. Find out for yourself. If you have questions, ask them. There’s still time to educate yourself about the issues.
You owe it to yourself to be informed, that much I can tell you.
Jeff Burkhead is editor of the Herald Times. You may e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org