There's a $17 billion need to fix deteriorating Colorado school buildings right now, according to the Colorado Department of Education, but CBS News Colorado has learned there's no more money left to go around.
State Treasurer Dave Young calls it a "crisis point."
Colorado is one of about a dozen states that doesn't provide a yearly funding stream for school buildings. Instead, it has a competition every year to hand out some money to the schools most in need.
It's called the Building Excellent Schools Today -- or BEST -- grant program, and it has awarded $3.5 billion over the last 15 years to school districts needing to update their buildings, according to the state department of education.
"I think that the $17 billion number can be overwhelming, so our staff and myself included, try to be really focused on the positives, the positive outcomes of the program," said Andy Stine, Executive Director of the BEST program. "We generate something like 17 and a half jobs for every $1 million that's contributed to those school programs."
Stine says over the last 15 years, nearly every district in the state has received some BEST funding.
This past year, the BEST program awarded more than $101 million to 17 school districts in need across the state, prioritizing health and safety concerns first, but still many school districts missed out.
"This last year... we had just about 50 grant applicants apply for funds through BEST, and we're currently able to award about 17 of those requests," Stine said. "Our main revenue sources for the BEST grant program are revenues from the state land board, Colorado lottery, marijuana excise taxes, and then, of course, matching money from all of the applicants that come in. If we can find additional resources or funding to come into the program, of course, I'm all for it, and I imagine most people would. There's absolutely an issue with not enough funding available to go toward facilities and facilities maintenance for public schools, not only in Colorado, but really across the country."
Norwood Schools in San Miguel County missed the cut on the BEST grant awards this year.
With only about 200 students K-12, Norwood is the kind of place where everyone is family.
"I love going to Norwood so much, it's an amazing school," says 11-year-old Kayden Donnellon, a 5th grader at Norwood. "The classes are so supportive."
While the staff might be supportive, the school building is not. There are holes throughout the school's ceilings, and every time it rains or snows, school officials say water leaks into the hallways. The walls are warping and bending to the point that bricks are falling off, and the ground underneath the school has shifted, causing some doors not to shut properly.
Norwood Superintendent Todd Bittner says it's a safety hazard that keeps him up at night.
"What we have is a ticking time bomb in no solutions, because there is no financial support... The State of Colorado doesn't understand this is not a unique scenario, and they need to work on it now. They needed to work on it 20 years ago, but as far as I'm concerned as a superintendent, I need a solution immediately, because the welfare of my kids is at stake," Bittner said. "My community expects me to make decisions to better our kids, and it's time for us to do that."
Bittner says other rural superintendents are in similar straights across the Centennial State. He says some colleagues have been turned down for the BEST grant four to five years in a row.
"When those of us in the rural communities see the deterioration of our buildings, and know that the safety and welfare of our kids are at stake, it is so debilitating and our ability to manage, it's indescribable," Bittner said.
State treasurer Young's office helps oversee the BEST program. He says he's working on a creative plan for a long-term funding fix -- infrastructure financing authority. It's something he says was already approved back in 2005, but wasn't put into action.
"We actually have statutory authority already, and this is from something that occurred way back in 2005. They set up a financing authority of public corporation with a board, which the treasurer sets, so it's already there, but it needs to be modernized," Young said. "We're doing this stakeholder work right now. We're bringing together the best minds in finance and the best minds of local needs, and what comes out of that may be a revitalization of the statute with real goals in mind for the legislature coming up in January."
Young says he's still evaluating exactly where the money would come from, but he's looking for a solution that wouldn't require asking for a tax increase.
"What we need to do is find streams of capital that we can bring in from other directions that then we can leverage in the Treasury to finance these bigger projects," Young said. "We can't be mired in political division and lawsuits. We've got to actually come together and recognize that if we don't solve this problem, we're all about to lose."
Regardless of whether or not the financing authority comes together, Young says the BEST program will still need approval from the legislature to increase its loan funding -- called Certificates of Participation -- to ensure that at the very least, more BEST grants can be handed out in 2024.
"We don't have money coming from the state to fund the debt service at this point," Young said. "We've got to come up."
Back in Norwood, Bittner says the idea sounds encouraging, but he's losing patience.
"I love the fact that he's trying to figure out a solution to this problem, but they need to make this a priority, because that first building that has a tragic incident because of something that we knew about and nobody did anything about it, that's a serious concern," Bittner said.
Every five years, state inspectors with the Colorado Department of Education review the condition of school buildings across the state, and report the findings to a publicly available website called Facility Insight. To view the site and see the condition of your school district's buildings, click here.
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