Back to school in classrooms or construction zones?

John Colson
Paul Conrad/Aspen Times Weekly

Walk past certain public schools in Aspen, Basalt or Carbondale, and you’d be forgiven for standing there a while and asking yourself, “Is this going to be ready for my kids in two weeks?”Construction equipment and workers, skeletal building frames, brick walls and piles of dirt are common at local schools from Aspen to Glenwood Springs these days, where normally there would be a few teachers’ cars in the parking lots and a general air of expectancy in the front offices.School board meeting agendas regularly feature updates from the construction management teams of both the $33 million Aspen School District project and the $86 million Roaring Fork School District project (as originally approved by voters in each district).The parental rumor mill, always an active source of not-always-reliable information, has been in hyperdrive for weeks with fears that the schools will open late, or that students will be taught in everything from modulars to converted school buses while the construction swirls around them.

All of that, say district superintendents, is untrue. The schools that were meant to be open by the first day of the autumn 2006 semester will be open on time, they say, although there have been cost overruns and unexpected expenses, coupled with some changes in building plans that school board members will grapple with soon.In the Aspen School District, Aspen High School will open Aug. 24, the middle and elementary schools both will open Aug. 28, and the Aspen Community School will open on Aug. 29.In the Roaring Fork district, the first day of school is Sept. 5 for all schools, and of the nine construction projects under way in Basalt, Carbondale and Glenwood Springs, six are expected to be finished by the beginning of classes.

Construction of five new classrooms atop what was a single-story classroom wing continues, but the project will not be completed until mid-November.”When they peeled off the roof they found that the bracing and everything that was supposed to be in there, wasn’t,” Aspen Superintendent Diana Sirko explained on a recent campus tour.The lack of structural steel meant the scope of the project had to be enlarged, which drove up costs and pushed back the completion date by about a month. Sirko maintained, however, that “it was never anticipated that it would be completed by the opening of school.”Altogether, she said, the changes have added 45 percent more steel to the project. “It’s going to be $800,000 to a million dollars more” than the anticipated original price tag of $2.6 million, she said.Asked if it appears that the builders of the school skimped on the construction materials when the school was built 15 years ago, she said that will be a matter of investigation by the district. She noted that the elementary school has had structural and roof-related problems starting soon after it was built, and that district officials were not surprised to uncover the structural defects when they removed the roof earlier this summer.

She also pointed out that the school’s central office, which partly sits in the wing under construction, was flooded over the summer and is being rehabilitated in time for the start of classes.She pledged that the ground-floor classrooms will be “habitable” by the opening day of classes, for kindergarten and first-grade students.And no, stressed Sirko, the Aspen elementary kids will not be forced to wear hard hats, although they occasionally might have trouble hearing their teacher over the construction noise.As for the question about where the money will come from for the changes in the elementary school project, Sirko said that plans for a new entrance and lobby for the Aspen District Theatre may have to be shelved for now. The new entrance was part of a series of theater improvements initially projected at $1.7 million; Sirko did not have exact numbers detailing how much money might be saved by eliminating the entrance and lobby renovation.All such decisions, Sirko said, will be up to the school board, which will review the construction program on Aug. 21.

Officials also were careful to explain to voters that the new Aspen Middle School, being built as an L-shaped structure around the old middle school, also will not be completed by the beginning of the ’06-’07 school year.The old middle school will open this fall as scheduled, although with a few compromised classrooms along the northeastern wall adjacent to the football field/track. The school district confirmed earlier in the year that several classrooms in that part of the old school overlap into the planned walls of the new school, due to a long-ago surveying error, and would lose their exterior walls and a certain amount of square footage to the new school’s foundation.That work has largely been completed, Sirko said, pointing to the rebuilt walls that will keep out the cold this winter. AMS Principal Paula Canning said that both the shop and English Language Learners classes will stay put despite the changes, although the ELL classes will be in a somewhat smaller room.The Spanish language classroom in that same wing has been essentially removed, and the class will be held in another part of the school, Canning said. Also, the band room is gone, and this year both band and choir will be taught in the old choir classroom next to the lunch room.

As for the athletic field, Sirko said, the lights are up and ready, the turf will be finished and ready to double as a playground while the old elementary school playground is covered by dirt. The “away” bleachers will be built by the start of school, she said, but the “home” bleachers must wait until next summer, along with a media booth and locker room building.As for the new middle school itself, Sirko conceded “We’ve had our surprises.” Soils tests showed the dirt wasn’t as solid as expected, forcing contractors to dig deeper and then put in more replacement fill dirt. Also, a recent change in asbestos control laws has required the district to spend some unanticipated money (and four weeks of construction time) on abatement proceedings. Sirko stressed that the small amounts of vermiculite encased in the walls never posed a danger to students or teachers when the walls were intact, but had to be dealt with once the walls were breached.”It will add some [cost],” she said of the changes. “We don’t know exactly how much.”

Although there are plans afoot to expand some of the classroom space at the Woody Creek ACS campus, Principal Jim Gilchrist said the plans are still going through the Pitkin County governmental review process.But in the meanwhile, Gilchrist noted, the school has completed improvements to its playground area, laying down a surface of “crumbed rubber” made from recycled tires. The surface is in the “landing areas” where kids are most likely to be airborne and need a softer surface, Gilchrist said. He said the project cost $38,160, and that funding came from grants from the Colorado Department of Local Affairs ($15,660 from a state program encouraging the use of recycled tires), Starwood resident Prince Bandar ($2,500), The Thrift Shop in Aspen ($3,000), and the Colorado Department of Education ($17,500).

According to information from officials in the Roaring Fork School District, the overall cost of the district’s ambitious nine-school construction program have risen from the initial estimate of $86 million to a currently anticipated $97.5 million. The increases are mostly attributable to the rising cost of construction materials, officials said.RFSD Assistant Superintendent Shannon Pelland indicated that the district earned a quick $5.1 million over the voter-approved bonding amount of $86 million simply by issuing the bonds at “favorable” premium rates. The rest of the money, she said, will come from investment income on the bonds ($3.3 million), capital reserve funds ($1.85 million), the district’s general fund ($1 million) and anticipated extra income from the state’s “specific ownership taxes” ($325,000).RFSD Superintendent Judy Haptonstall explained that “when we received information that rising construction costs had the potential for affecting the scope of the work on the projects,” district officials met with construction teams and community members on the Bond Oversight Committee to discuss options.”What we didn’t want to do is cut things such as size of buildings that we had promised the voters,” Haptonstall said. School officials have taken steps to “extend the budget,” such as trimming costs wherever possible and lengthening the payment schedule on the purchase of the new Roaring Fork High School site.According to RFSD officials, six of the nine schools under various stages of construction will be completed by September. Work will continue on expansion of the Crystal River Elementary School, as well as on building a new Roaring Fork High (completion date: July, 2007, cost: $11.2 million) and vastly remodeling and expanding Glenwood Springs High School (completion date; January, 2008, cost: $38.1 million).Work on the schools in Basalt is to be finished in September, in time for classes to begin on Sept. 7 at the $11.4 million Basalt Elementary, where builders are consolidating the old two-building configuration and adding 10,000 square feet of instructional and other space.

The same goes for the $2.6 million addition of two classrooms and remodel of certain portions of Basalt Middle School, and the $4.3 million construction of a new wing at Basalt High School – in both schools, classes are to start on Sept. 5. The latter project includes six regular classrooms, two art rooms and 13,500 square feet of new space, along with new scoreboards, bleachers, concession stand and press box lights at the Field of Dreams football field and completion of the softball field.Only the preschool wing of Crystal River Elementary School in Carbondale is to be finished by the start of school in September, officials say. The entire $11.2 million school expansion is to be finished by December, meaning the old Carbondale Elementary School building will house students for one more semester before the CES student body moves over to the new site.For the future, the district plans to move the Carbondale Middle School students over to a remodeled Roaring Fork High School building, after the high schoolers have been shifted into their new digs south of the Carbondale Fire House. The middle school building is then slated to be used for other district purposes, including the likely relocation of the Bridges alternative school.The CES building is subject to negotiations between the school district and the town of Carbondale, which has expressed interest in taking possession of the building for some public use, possibly as a community center and small business incubator facility.John Colson’s e-mail address is