Old schools get pot-sales boost

Nearly $300M in con­struc­tion grants awarded to ru­ral ar­eas

The Denver Post - - DENVER & THE WEST - By Monte Wha­ley

DEER TRAIL» There is sad­ness about the even­tual de­struc­tion of this com­mu­nity’s school, parts of which were built 100 years ago. Many peo­ple in this town of 570, long past their teen years, still at­tend the an­nual home­com­ing dance in the school’s gym and rem­i­nisce about old flames and foot­ball cham­pi­onships.

But there is also ex­cite­ment on these streets 60 miles south­east of Den­ver. New homes are pop­ping up just off In­ter­state 70 — and a state-of-the-art, pre-k-12 school is on the hori­zon, to be built in part from money col­lected from le­gal pot buys.

Plenty of peo­ple have per­sonal ob­jec­tions to mar­i­juana use, but state and lo­cal school of­fi­cials say no one is protest­ing that run­down schools are get­ting mil­lions in rev­enue from ex­cise taxes on re­tail mar­i­juana sales for ren­o­va­tions and whole­sale re­place­ment.

That’s the case in Deer Trail, where swim­mers are banned from us­ing the 50year-old pool, stu­dents in wheel­chairs must be hoisted up ill-equipped stairs and into nar­row bath­rooms, and the coaches’ locker room is closed be­cause of a sewage leak.

“It’s just a night­mare to keep things go­ing around here,” said school prin­ci­pal Dave Casey.

But a $34 million pre-k-12 cam­pus will take shape over the next two years at the site of a for­mer Fu­ture Farmers of Amer­ica hog farm, thanks in part to an in­jec­tion of mar­i­juana sales fund­ing through the state’s Build­ing Ex­cel­lent Schools To­day, or BEST, pro­gram.

“I don’t care where the money comes from. If we get a new school, I’m for it,” said Hay­ley White­head, a Deer Trail grad­u­ate who works as the dis­trict’s ad­min­is­tra­tive as­sis­tant. “I see the in­voices and see what we need for re­pairs, so I have a pretty good idea of the sit­u­a­tion here.”

“There are lots of so-called ‘sin taxes’ for uses and prod­ucts that peo­ple don’t nec­es­sar­ily en­dorse,” added Jay Hoskin­son, re­gional pro­gram man­ager for cap­i­tal con­struc­tion for the Colorado De­part- ment of Education. “But I think peo­ple also start look­ing at it as a pos­si­ble new rev­enue source. And it kind of gets in­ter­min­gled with other fund­ing and be­comes pretty much all part of the same pack­age.”

“And so far, we’ve not heard from any school districts who say, ‘No, we are not go­ing to use that money,’ ” Hoskin­son said.

Mar­i­juana ex­cise taxes were used for the first time in 2013-14. In that year, more than $3 million was in­jected into BEST school con­struc­tion projects. Nearly $24 million was used the next year.

By 2015-16, $80 million in mar­i­juana tax rev­enue was in­jected into the BEST pro­gram. That in­cluded a one-time $40 million payment after Colorado vot­ers de­cided two years ago to keep and spend more than $66 million in ex­cess mar­i­juana sales rev­enue.

The state says an­other $40 million was in­jected into BEST projects in 2016-17 and an­other $40 million is pro­jected for the next fis­cal year.

Other sources have fed the BEST pro-

gram, in­clud­ing spillover from the Colorado Lot­tery and from the Colorado Land Board. In all, BEST has funded $ 1.2 bil­lion for high-need con­struc­tion projects since 2009.

Of­fi­cials say money from re­tail pot sales is only a frac­tion of what is needed to re­pair, main­tain and build schools in Colorado. One study in­di­cates the state’s schools need nearly $18 bil­lion in cap­i­tal con­struc­tion through 2018.

“When you look at the big picture, you re­al­ize how lit­tle that $40 million goes for statewide,” Hoskin­son said. “But it helps.”

Es­pe­cially in ru­ral ar­eas, where bud­gets are small and districts can’t af­ford huge bond is­sues, of­fi­cials say.

In fact, just about all of the 27 re­cip­i­ents of the nearly $300 million in BEST con­struc­tion grants for 2017-18 were in ru­ral school districts, in­clud­ing Deer Tail.

Oth­ers that re­ceived BEST awards in­clude the Brush School Dis­trict, which got more than $60 million for a new mid­dle school and to ren­o­vate its high school, and Del Norte, which re­ceived $45 million for a new pre-k-12 school.

All of the school districts vy­ing for BEST grants must show great need and con­firm at least some match­ing fund­ing, Hoskin­son said.

Deer Trail passed a $6.8 million bond is­sue in Novem­ber to raise its match­ing funds. The vote passed by a 16 per­cent mar­gin.

Many skep­ti­cal vot­ers were won over after they toured the school, su­per­in­ten­dent Kevin Schott said.

“They were say­ing a new school wasn’t needed un­til they saw what we and the kids have to deal with ev­ery day. And I think it was eye-open­ing for them,” he said.

Many class­rooms are ille­quipped for com­put­ers and other tech­nol­ogy, and a struc­tural en­gi­neer said the school swim­ming pool was in such dis­re­pair he rec­om­mended it be closed, Schott said.

School se­cu­rity is also an is­sue, with many nooks and cran­nies in blind hall­ways and doors that are dif­fi­cult to close and lock.

“It’s not ideal by any stretch of the imagination,” Schott said.

The old school will be razed and the new school will be con­structed nearby. About 160 homes will be built just south of the new school — part of a hous­ing rush in Deer Trail.

“Sure, plenty of peo­ple will be sad when the old school closes and dis­ap­pears,” Schott said. “But the new school is some­thing this com­mu­nity de­serves. And we are so grate­ful for it.”

Andy Cross, The Den­ver Post

Prin­ci­pal Dave Casey stands next to the now-shut­tered school swim­ming pool in Deer Trail.

Pho­tos by Andy Cross, The Den­ver Post

Dave Casey, the school prin­ci­pal in Deer Trail, uses his cell­phone’s flash­light to open the door to a locker room that has been closed be­cause of a sewage leak from a mal­func­tion­ing pump.

The build­ing that houses the shut­tered school swim­ming pool in Deer Trail has cracks in the walls and has been deemed un­safe.

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