PUEBLO — Community members in Pueblo are raising concerns after District 60 announced plans to build a new K-8 school with $30 million in excess funds from its 2019 bond measure.
The decision caused backlash from some who wanted more transparency and communication before funds were allocated.
"I was surprised by the new school building, but I was more surprised by the lack of communication and transparency with the Citizens Advisory Committee," said Lori Miller.
She was disappointed to hear that the committee wasn't involved in the decision to build a fifth school as part of the bond measure.
"I was disappointed there wasn't more collaboration on the part of the school district administration and the committee. I think that collaboration is important, and that committee was appointed as an oversight committee to make sure checks and balances when it came to spending the bond money," said Miller. "Now I realize this is extra funds but I think it was a professional courtesy and part of the collaborative process to include the Citizens Advisory Committee in some of the discussions or answer some of the questions that they had posed."
Citizens Advisory Committee members say they were upset to learn of the new K-8 school through news media, and not beforehand from school board members.
"We do not debate whether the board has the right to vote on the creation of a new school. We do believe they were obligated, both by the language of the committee and professional courtesy, to share ideas and allow us to come back with questions and comments," said Mike Donnell, Citizens Advisory Committee.
He says there should have been a discussion before the decision was made on how the extra funds would be best spent.
"We wanted to see if there were other expenses related to the district. Whether it was spread across or one or two buildings, we wanted to see other places that might have been invested, we wanted to know if they had considered all of those," said Donnell.
But the district says it's not the committee's role to be involved with those decisions. Under school board policy, the legal responsibility for decision-making in all matters of policy and operation rests with the Board.
"We were not entitled to consult with them, we were entitled to inform them, but it does not say we're required to inform them before we make the decision. Those are business decisions that must be made at the time. We complied with that, they were informed," said Dennies Maes, Pueblo School District 60 School Board.
In approving the new K-8, the district says they did not circumvent the Committee. Its authority is to “monitor,” as stated in the ballot question, not to approve projects. The district says while they could have told the committee beforehand, they didn't want them to create the impression the decision to build the K-8 school was within the purview of the committee.
"There's a question that we're going outside of the bond language and that's just not right. You read the bond language and it says for construction of buildings within D60 and that's exactly we're doing," said Maes.
The District consulted with Kutak Rock LLP, a well-known law firm specializing in bonds, on whether they could use a portion of its excess bond funds to build a new school. Based on their understanding of the facts, the firm confirmed the district could.
He says the decision to build a brand new middle school in an area without one was a smart business decision.
"Instead of putting money into schools that would be a bandage approach, we are building an institution over the course of 50 years that will provide education to approximately 35,000 to 37,000 students. They will be in a state-of-the-art school that will have an emphasis on career technical education. So looking at all of the options out there, this was a no-brainer," said Maes.
Even if the funds were allocated to repairs or maintenance, Maes says it won't be sufficient enough to make a significant impact.
"With $30 million you're not going to touch the other $400 to $500 million in repairs that you need. So what's the best use of that money, building another school," said Maes.
He says building a new school will not cost the taxpayers.
"It was from good bond returns, premiums on the bonds, and investments we've made with the money once we got it. Also, a guaranteed maximum price with the contractors doing the work so we are locked into what the price is going to be," said Maes.
The school would open as a K-6 facility, with the additional grades added in the ensuing two years.