School District 51 officials clarified what their commitments were in regards to divesting or demolishing the Orchard Mesa Pool following pushback from County Commissioner Scott McInnis, who said he thought their position was misleading.
The district was awarded a $13.9 million Building Excellent Schools Today (BEST) grant to go toward the construction of the new Orchard Mesa Middle School. That grant has been a key factor in the debate over whether or not the pool will continue to operate, because the district has said it promised to divest from or demolish the old properties as part of its grant agreement. The pool is managed by the city of Grand Junction, which shares funding with Mesa County. The district owns the building.
A Colorado Department of Education spokeswoman this week told The Daily Sentinel the district is not required to demolish or divest from the Orchard Mesa Pool under its grant agreement with BEST.
“The pool facility was not contemplated in the grant agreement,” Department of Education Chief Communications Officer Dana Smith said. “So there was really no obligation to demolish or divest of that.”
District 51 Chief Financial Officer Phil Onofrio said during the grant application process he told the BEST Board that the district intended to transfer the pool to the city of Grand Junction. If the city did not want to continue to operate the facility as a community pool, he said he told BEST the school would demolish the facility.
“The district is currently in discussions with the city of Grand Junction to transfer ownership of these buildings,” the district wrote in response to a question from the BEST Board. “Currently, there is no work planned in these buildings that would be required prior to the sale.”
The written question and answers were made in spring of 2018, a year before voters defeated a $79 million ballot measure that would have provided funds to construct a new community center, which also included funding for $3.8 million of work at Orchard Mesa Pool. Without that money, the city said, the pool would still need between $1.8 million and $2.4 million in repairs.
District 51 Superintendent Diana Sirko said this week that the grant agreement includes language requiring “full demolition, partial demolition, or divestment of any structure for replacement.” Failing to meet that requirement could be considered a breach of contract, Sirko said, though she did acknowledge the Department of Education could waive that requirement in the case of the pool. Sirko said the district is taking care to adhere to grant rules so as to not affect future grant possibilities.
“We want to apply for a BEST grant for Grand Junction High School for instance, or other facilities,” Sirko said. “The last thing we want to do is have any illusion that we’ve not been honest with the BEST grant people about what our desire was to divest ourself of the pool.”
Onofrio said the district has maintained that it would only demolish the pool if the city and county no longer wanted to operate it. If the city did not want to take over ownership, but rather continue the current arrangement in which it runs the pool operations and shares the costs with the county while the school remains the owner, Onofrio said “that’s probably good enough for us and BEST.” However, he said the district still wants to transfer ownership to the city.
“If they stop operating the pool then according to our contract with the city and the county it reverts to us and we will dispose of it,” Onofrio said. “As long as they keep running it, it stays.”
Keeping the pool running is the trick, Onofrio said. He pointed to the more than $2 million required for repairs and the fact that the three entities have not yet agreed to how those could be funded. Sirko said there were some grant opportunities and that the VA was being contacted to potentially help find additional funding.
McInnis said at the county’s Monday meeting that he had been under the impression the district was required by covenant to divest or demolish the pool under its agreement with BEST. He said after reaching out to the school he was told it had been an oral agreement with BEST.
“It think it was somewhat disingenuous for the school district to make that implication (that they were required to divest from the pool) at the beginning of this process and wash their hands of this,” McInnis said. “I think they could be as straightforward as the city and county are being.”
Grand Junction Mayor Rick Taggart said he didn’t think it would be productive for the city to dig into what the school district is required to do or not with the pool.
He said the district offered a year’s extension for the three entities involved with the pool to find a solution. He said he thinks the city will accept that extension. Taggart said he didn’t expect his original proposal for all three entities to jointly fund the $2.4 million in repairs to be workable.
Sirko said she still felt the three entities were working well together to find a solution for the pool.
“What I don’t want is this to be a situation where three partners that have worked together for a lot of positives for this community and for our area to be like the three of us are fighting about it because unfortunately that part is getting the most attention,” Sirko said. “The intention of all three entities is to figure out a way to keep this resource operational for the community.”