Representatives of Citizens for School District 51 paid a visit to the Sentinel's editorial board Tuesday to make the case for the $179.5 million bond measure on November's ballot.
We asked the hard questions — seeking assurances that a new Grand Junction High School can be built on its current site without structural problems that plagued the school from its initial construction more than 60 years ago. We also wanted to know more about how cost projections were calculated.
But the Sentinel's editorial board consists of six individuals largely supportive of the district's efforts to improve educational outcomes, which includes creating and maintaining safe and modern learning spaces. So the conversation was less about persuading us to get behind the measure and more about analyzing the community's mindset when it comes to supporting schools.
What followed was a back and forth about the biggest hurdles to the measure's passage — issues the bond measure committee has to be prepared to address if it hopes to turn ambivalence or open opposition into support.
The committee's case is pretty straightforward. Grand Junction High School has outlived its usefulness. Rather than spending millions a year trying to keep it operational, money would be better spent on something more durable.
But spending $124 million on a single campus — the new GJHS — presents its own challenges. Why should voters connected to Fruita Monument or Central or Palisade high schools support an issue that doesn't provide any benefits for them? A slightly bigger bond that fixes problems at all the Grand Valley's high schools creates a better opportunity for broader buy-in.
So that's the pitch — $179.5 million to build a new GJHS, extend the lifespan of Central, Palisade, and Fruita Monument by 25 years, and harden the security of all high schools by connecting all academic buildings under one roof and creating a single point of entry in each school. The construction plans eliminate more than 120 unsecured entrances in all four schools and bring them up to modern fire codes and improve compliance with provisions of the American with Disabilities Act.
Unfortunately, focusing on the granular details is likely to produce yawns for those who don't have children in these schools. If the committee wants to energize people about the bond measure, it needs to provide a much bigger picture.
First and foremost, it must emphasize value and accountability. As a result of the bond and mill levy approved by voters in 2017, the district built some new facilities, improved others and bolstered classroom resources. It delivered results on time and under budget. It took those savings and put them into improved security measures at the high schools and middle schools. And it did everything related to those voter-approved measures transparently so taxpayers could see where every nickel went on the school's website.
Yet not everyone in the community is aware of how well the district did in delivering on the 2017-funded projects, and the district needs to communicate that more broadly.
Overshadowing these successes, the D51 Board of Education had to contend with the fallout of a much-maligned administrative overhaul that cost the former superintendent his job. The board hired Diana Sirko as superintendent. She corrected the problems stemming from the makeover and mitigated most of the costs. Under her steady hand, we believe that she has largely righted the ship and set the district back on the correct course.
The committee must emphasize that the school board has done everything it can to restore trust in the district. With that turbulence in the rearview mirror, it's time to focus on the future.
That means drawing a clear parallel between the Grand Valley's economic fortunes and the state of our schools. As committee member and local business owner Sarah Shrader pointed out, the valley is attracting plenty of attention from Front Range business owners and residents of other states. These potential residents recognize the outstanding quality of life here. "They find great commercial space and they love downtown, they love the river, they love the trails. Only one thing is holding them back and that's the quality of our schools."
Or as committee member Dan Prinster put it, "At some point, we have a community obligation to decide whether the facilities are in need of being addressed."
The committee can make that case. It can emphasize that the bond measure only asks for as much as the district thinks voters can handle right now. It can also point to a history of judicious spending and cost containment. But it's going to have to lay out how this bond measure fits into a bigger scheme of fortifying the district's mission. For example, creating more classroom space expands vocational, STEM and agricultural programs and fixes a weird grade alignment in Fruita schools.
Connecting dots — how better facilities will eventually lead to better economic opportunity for the community — is the committee's biggest challenge in our view. As the campaign unfolds, we encourage voters to seek their own assurances that this is the most-cost effective, well-vetted path forward.
After discussing this issues at length, we're convinced it is.