EVANSTON — The Uinta County School District No. 1 Board of Trustees has decided to let voters decide if the district should take out a $22.7 million bond for the construction of an activities fieldhouse on district property adjacent to Evanston High School. During the board’s regular meeting on Monday, July 13, board members approved a resolution to place the question on the general election ballot this November.
During a presentation from Plan One Architects, which had conducted a feasibility study for the project, board members reviewed information on two possible options for such a facility. Both options would include a fieldhouse, a new soccer field and redevelopment of the existing football stadium, where the district hopes to install a turf field, along with additional parking areas, an additional bus and drop-off lane, landscaping and more.
One option would include an additional wing with visitor locker rooms and office space, as well as more spectator viewing space, with an additional 35,000-plus square feet more than the other option. The first option would carry a total price tag of approximately $35.5 million, while the second would come at a cost of approximately $25.5 million.
Both of the options carry a potential cost greater than the amount that would be sought through bonding; however, the district is limited in the amount that can be bonded to 10% of the total assessed valuation of property in the district. Superintendent Ryan Thomas said the most recent such valuation was roughly $227 million.
According to John Crandall with bonding company Stifel and Associates, a 20-year bond on $22.7 million would amount to a monthly impact for homeowners of $4.91 on a $100,000 home and $9.82 on a $200,000 home, or $58.94 and $117.89, respectively, on an annual basis.
Thomas and trustees expressed excitement about the potential project and the hope that voters would approve the measure. Thomas described it as an investment in the community and the district’s students. Trustees Kay Fackrell and David Peterson both said such a facility could help with economic development in the community through the ability to host sporting events and tournaments, bringing business and tax dollars to the area.
If approved, the fieldhouse would feature an indoor track area, as well as a large floor space that could be utilized for sports like basketball and volleyball and converted to a turf field for indoor soccer, for example. Trustees said the facility could also be utilized by marching band, cheer and dance teams and more. The need for additional space for activities has been discussed numerous times at different meetings over the past several years, both because of a shortage of facility space for the multiple activities that take place at one time in the district and because sports teams, especially in spring sports, are at a disadvantage because they’re unable to practice regularly with the often poor and variable spring weather.
If the measure passes, Crandall said the funds could be available within 60-90 days after the election. The construction process would likely take 14-18 months. Trustees and district staff hope to utilize the next few months to convince the voting public the benefits for students and the community are worth the roughly $10 per month in increased taxes.
Back to school
In addition to discussing the fieldhouse proposal, trustees also discussed plans to reopen schools for the 2020-21 school year. Thomas said the Wyoming Department of Education released its Smart Start guidance document in early July and every district in the state must submit their specific plan to the state for approval by Aug. 3. However, Thomas said the timing was problematic for the district because principals have the month of July off and won’t return to work until Aug. 3 and principals will be tasked with coming up with specific plans for individual schools.
Assistant Superintendent Doug Rigby said principals and staff had already been working on plans at the end of last school year and those plans could now be incorporated into the Smart Start framework.
That framework includes details on steps and procedures that are required, others that are recommended and still others that are listed as considerations in three possible tiers. Tier I is for schools that are open with precautions in place, Tier II is for a hybrid of in-person and distance learning and Tier III is for a complete closure of in-person instruction in a situation similar to the last several weeks of the last school year. Rigby said the idea is for tiers II and III to be utilized only sparingly if necessitated by local conditions, but the district has to be prepared to transition from one tier to the next immediately as opposed to having a three-week period of transition like what happened in March.
Thomas said the district would meet all requirements and many of the recommendations contained in the Smart Start document and the district’s intention is to begin with Tier I in-person instruction at the end of August.
“We are going to have school, but we are going to follow the recommendations ... requirements from the state,” said Thomas, “and then we will have other recommendations that I think will be beyond that.”
Thomas acknowledged there would likely be “things parents won’t like and hopefully things they will like” in the district’s plans, although specific plans for any school were not discussed at the meeting. Thomas also addressed the risks inherent with students and staff returning to classrooms in the fall.
“The expectation is that we will have some risks involved in this,” he said, “but I think we just have to have that discussion. We cannot right now guarantee that a student is not going to get influenza A, pinkeye or strep throat, so we can’t guarantee they’re not going to get COVID … but it’s still a risk, and parents need to understand and kids need to understand that there’s a risk involved with going back to school.”
Thomas emphasized that parents screening their children for symptoms every school day and keeping them home if sick will be the primary pillar of the district’s plan.
“What’s going to make this work is parents need to screen their kids daily for symptoms of COVID before sending their children to school,” he said. “If they don’t do that, we’re not going to be successful.”
Trustees discussed whether masks would be required for students and staff members. Thomas said masks are not one of the requirements in the Smart Start guidance; however, masks likely will be required in some areas, including on buses where there is not enough space to socially distance. Thomas said a concern is that the district is not able to provide disposable masks for all 2,700 students twice daily. During summer school, Thomas said, masks have been required for students and staff and the district has been providing masks for those who need them.
Thomas mentioned transition periods in hallways as a time that masks may be required, and trustee Dave Bennett objected.
“I don’t like the word ‘required,’” said Bennett. “If they want to, that’s their choice. I understand your concern, but constitutionally we’re walking the edge here.” Bennett also claimed the risks of contracting COVID-19 were only minimally reduced by mask utilization. Bennett said he preferred to only “encourage” mask usage.
However, Thomas said it’s possible public health officials and the department of education will require the district to utilize masks, in which case they will have to do so. Thomas also said the mask requirement enabled summer school to continue even after two cases were confirmed in individuals in that program because public health deemed the risk of spread to be low because of the masks.
“What we don’t want to do is have school open and then have to close it because we didn’t take serious enough precautions,” said Thomas.
Board chair Jami Brackin said masks can hamper communication and many people don’t like them; however, she asked, “Are we really going to stop face-to-face schools because of a mask if public health says we have to wear masks?”
The board also discussed the possibility of losing some staff members due to concerns surrounding COVID.
“We’re going to have some teachers that won’t want to come back,” said Thomas. “The expectations that I have, and I understand that all this flows together, are that they’re contracted. If we have school, they need to be there. They need to make a choice. They can take whatever precautions they desire as long as they come back and perform their duties.”
Although the possibility of having another board meeting to discuss the district’s specific plans prior to the submission date of Aug. 3 was mentioned, it is unclear if such a meeting will be held. Thomas did, however, say the plans would be released to the public, while Brackin said the board wanted to hear recommendations, questions and concerns from the public.
Lastly, the board also approved the 2020-21 budget, which changed very little from the prior year’s budget, with appropriations of approximately $67.5 million. District Chief Financial Officer John Williams said there will be increases in salaries, benefits and services; however, there will be decreased costs in supplies, equipment and dues and fees. The district has approximately $5.9 million in reserves. Williams said the budget for the upcoming year has been largely unaffected by the COVID pandemic; however, he anticipates significant changes in coming years due to the “seismic” revenue shortfalls projected for the state.