Over the next three days, Colorado school districts will compete for the only significant source of state construction dollars in hopes of getting money for projects that range from building schools to replacing roofs and 50-year-old boilers.
Their fate is in the hands of the state Capital Construction Assistance Board, which meets Wednesday through Friday to decide on 2012-13 grants from the Building Excellent Schools Today program.
A total of $439.8 million in projects is being sought by 48 districts, 12 charter schools, one board of cooperative educational services and the Colorado School for the Deaf and Blind. The requests seek $297.7 million in state funding and promise $142.1 million in local matching funds.
The competitive five-year-old BEST program is the only significant source of state construction and renovation funds for schools. As such, the grant process is closely watched not only by applicants but also by other districts and charters who hope to apply in the future.
The BEST board hasn’t yet decided how much state money it will commit this time. It could be as low as about $130 million. Because the grant requests include nearly $300 million in state funds, some districts will go away empty-handed, just as other applicants have in the past four grant cycles.
Larger projects are financed through a lease-purchase system known as certificates of participation, on which annual payments are made from state funds and local matches.
This year’s three-day board meeting is significant because the board is approaching the end of an era of big grants. State law sets an annual $40 million limit on payments for BEST projects, and the annual payout now is near $30 million.
This week’s deliberations also are of interest because the board is changing its procedures in an effort to minimize confusion about how it decides on projects.
This year’s applications range from the $42 million high school replacement project sought by the Montezuma-Cortez schools – half from the state, half from a local match – to a $27,500 request from the Sterling schools for fire alarm upgrades. In addition to the lease-purchase projects, the BEST board also makes direct cash grants for smaller needs.
There are 17 applications of more than $10 million each. Many of them fit what’s often considered the traditional profile of a BEST applicant – a small rural district with an aging building and insufficient local resources to replace it. In addition to Montezuma-Cortez, here are the applications with individual project costs of more than $20 million:
- Lake County or Leadville – $31 million for three projects, including high school renovation and addition
- Greeley – $29.2 million to replace a middle school
- Sheridan – $29.5 million to replace an early childhood center and renovate a middle school
- West End, including Naturita and Nucla – $21.9 million to replace a PK-12 school
- Limon – $20.8 million for a PK-12 renovation
- Elbert 200 – $20.6 million for a new PK-12 school
- Otis in Washington County – $20.6 million for a PK-12 school replacement
- South Conejos, including Antonito – $20.6 million for a PK-12 school replacement
An additional eight applicants have requested projects with price tags of between $10 million and $20 million each. Those include Fort Lupton, Genoa-Hugo, Hi Plains in Kit Carson County, Kim, Pikes Peak BOCES, Platte Valley including Kersey, Ross Montessori Charter in Carbondale and Salida.
As often happens, several of the applicants are districts and schools whose bids failed in previous years. Of the 17 applicants seeking $10 million or more, seven are repeat requests, including the two largest, Montezuma-Cortez and Lake County.
Applicants also include some of the state’s largest districts, such as Adams 12-Five Star, Aurora and Denver.
BEST awards are made using a complicated set of building condition and financial factors that give the construction board a fair amount of discretion. And because the total of the applications exceeds the money available every year, some projects that look deserving on paper are left out while similar applications win.
- The BEST board will meet starting at 8:30 a.m. Wednesday, Thursday and Friday in the Aspen Board Room of the Adams 12-Five Star district conference center, 1500 E. 128th Ave. in Thornton.
- Get agenda details and ground rules here.
- EdNews will be covering the meetings and will provide updates on Twitter and Facebook plus daily wrapups.
In past years, applications were listed by Division of Capital Construction Staff in order of their ratings on various structural and educational suitability factors. But the board, applying additional factors such as matching amounts, picked winners out of the original lists’ order. In some years, the board stopped going through the list after it had spent the available money.
That caused confusion and some resentment from districts that felt that their applications didn’t get full hearings.
This year, the board will be briefed on projects in alphabetical order and applicants will be allowed to address the board. After each presentation, the board will decide whether to put a project on one of two short lists, the first for projects under $1 million and the other for those costing more than $1 million. All applications will be reviewed.
After that process is finished, board members will individually rank the projects on the two short lists, and division staff will compile those rankings to create prioritized lists. The board “will then review each of the shortlists and determine how many of the projects can be funded with the available amount of money,” in the words of a division document.
Also new this year is a formula for calculating the matching funds required of charter schools, a change that’s expected to make some charter bids more competitive.
Future of BEST
Created by the 2008 legislature, BEST was a feel-good program that won wide Statehouse support because it seemed to address a problem – deteriorating rural schools – without increasing taxes or taking money from other programs. BEST is funded by a share of revenues from state school trust lands and a smaller amount of Colorado Lottery revenues.
But term limits make legislative memories short, and lots of questions were raised about BEST during the 2012 session. Some lawmakers wonder if the money could be better used for other purposes. Others think the school lands revenues should flow into that program’s permanent fund, allowing it to grow and provide interest revenue for future education spending.
Despite the talk, no BEST legislation passed last spring. But some board members are worried about what might happen in 2013. During its May meeting, the board discussed the possibility of spending two years’ worth of money this year, avoiding legislative cuts next year. No decision was made, so the board will have to make that call this week.
The construction board’s recommendations are expected to include alternate projects in case some winners can’t raise their local matches through bond issues in November. Of the 17 applications with price tags of more than $10 million each, all but two will require bond issues to raise local matches. Last year two districts that were grant finalists lost their bond elections, allowing two alternates to win awards.
The construction board’s final list will have to be ratified by the State Board of Education, which usually acts at its August meeting.
Through last January, the program has provided $674 million for 237 projects at 147 schools.
The BEST program launched with a professional evaluation of all school buildings in the state. Based on that, division officials say there’s an $18 billion backlog of construction and renovation needs and that those grow at the rate of $1 billion a year.