This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins.
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Idaho Springs earlier this month slapped the Clear Creek School District with a cease and desist order demanding a halt to construction of a new bus barn.
The flare-up over a lack of permits and licensed contractors on a bus barn that was originally budgeted at $1.6 million but now is expected to cost nearly $7 million is the latest hurdle for the 680-student district that is in the middle of $40.7 million in improvement projects.
In January, the Citizen Accountability Team, formed in 2021 to guard school district project spending, sent a report to the district school board expressing concern about the soaring costs of construction for the projects upgrading district schools and facilities. Noting that the cost of the planned bus barn has grown to about $10,000 per student, the citizen team “strongly recommended investigating other sites to minimize costs, but the board has made their decision.”
The district was already on notice with the Citizen Accountability Team. In November the district board received a scathing letter saying the citizen team unanimously agreed it could no longer assure the financial integrity of the district’s construction plans.
“The CAT has been screaming about this since the beginning,” said Lisa Manifold, a former member of the team and longtime resident of Idaho Springs. “This is like the ship is on fire and it’s sinking. The fact that the city has sent a cease and desist to me shows that this has really broken down.”
Clear Creek School District Board President Sandi Schuessler declined to comment, saying in an email: “given that this is an open legal issue we will reserve comment at this time.”
School districts in Colorado are allowed to determine their own method and placement for new construction but must follow some local rules. Idaho Springs has regulations for earth disturbance, tapping city utilities and licensing requirements for all construction firms operating inside the city.
The district’s contractor did not have a license with the city. It did not work with the city for plans to dig beneath Colorado 103 to tap to the only main water line that provides all water to the city.
“If city staff observes continuing activity occurring on the site after this notice has been posted, the city will take further action, to potentially include the issuance of daily fines until the issues are rectified,” the July 13, 2023 cease and desist demand letter reads.
The city also designed its new public works facility to accommodate district school buses and offered the district space in the planned building, but the district declined.
“We want them to know we are good partners but it’s important to us that we follow the same land use rules for everyone,” said Jonathan Cain, the interim community development planner and assistant city manager in Idaho Springs, noting that the district’s construction contractors have filed for a license with the city.
The city is waiting for a request for a permit to dig and tap the main water line.The critical piece of infrastructure is an old water line that the city plans to replace soon.
“It is something we need to be very careful about,” Cain said. “If there’s any problem with that line, it would be catastrophic for the city.”
Clear Creek County voters in 2021 approved $33 million in debt for the school district — increasing taxes $2.5 million a year — to pay for the renovation and repair of five schools and buildings. The construction of the transportation and maintenance facility was not part of that bond plan.
The same year the school district sold its former bus barn and GoldDigger football field to Four Points Funding, an Opportunity Zone investment outfit, for $2.5 million. Four Points held community meetings to form a plan for 120 housing units and mixed use on the two properties next to Interstate 70 in Idaho Springs.
The school district board had said proceeds from the sale to Four Points would cover the cost of building the new bus barn on the running track at the district’s Building 103, which is a former middle school being renovated with $25 million in bond funds into a new outdoor-learning elementary school and performing arts center.
“This could be a generational mistake”
Clear Creek Commissioner Sean Wood said residents are closely watching the school district’s spending. He asked the district if it could outsource maintenance of its school buses. He’s curious if the district closely studied the proposal from Idaho Springs to share space in the city’s new public works building.
The idea of sharing maintenance facilities between the county, city and school district was explored in May at a meeting between the school board and county commissioners.
“I like the concept of combining redundant operations that we all have to do,” Clear Creek County Commissioner Randy Wheelock said during the meeting.
Wood wonders if the district should pause construction and re-examine its decision to build a new bus barn as costs have exploded. The massive new budget for the transportation facility, he said, could be diverted to teachers and parents who are “begging” for more funding for schools, teachers and students.
“It seems to me this could be a generational mistake,” Wood said. “I hope this (cease and desist order) gets people’s attention to want to ask the school district to slow down and make sure they are making the best financial decision with our limited resources. We want to be the best partner we can be for the school district but there appears to be a lack of willingness to discuss this and engage with the community.”