A new Grand County Middle School is planned to replace the current building, which dates back to the 1950s. [Photo by John Hales / Moab Sun News]

Grand County School District Superintendent JT Stroder is speaking out in response to an effort by a group of Moab residents to gather signatures for an election vote on funding for a new Grand County Middle School.

The Grand County Middle School was identified as a “high priority project” for the district in 2007, and strategic planning has been underway since 2012. The cost to remodel the aging school building — which dates back to the 1950s — could cost an estimated $10-20 million, which prompted the school board members to come to the conclusion in 2017 that it would be worthwhile to forego a remodel and instead build a new school building.

According to Stroder, the Grand County Board of Education has been saving taxpayers’ money for six years to build the new school building.

“Now we’re moving forward,” he told the Moab Sun News on Nov. 21. “The board has $6.5 million they have saved to start this project.”

He estimates the cost of the new building to be somewhere near $24 million for the building itself, and said there would likely be additional costs for furnishings. The school board would like to break ground on the new middle school building on the land behind the current building between March and early May 2019.

But earlier this month, Moab resident Tom Lacy wrote a letter to the editor at the Moab Sun News urging people to sign a petition that would place the new school funding issue before voters. An election vote would give people the opportunity to approve or reject the bonds for the new school funding (up to $27 million). Lacy, along with resident Dwight Johnston, Dennis Silva and Glenn Wanczyk, simultaneously submitted a paid advertisement to the Moab Sun News, “Taxation Without Representation?!?” and said that without an election vote on the funding, the cost of the school will increase by over a million dollars.

Stroder has responded by saying the information being shared by the people seeking to put the issue on the ballot “has been misconstrued.”

“Some of the stuff they’re putting out there is not accurate,” Stroder said. “The only guarantee is that the way the board has chosen to fund this new school is that there will not be a tax increase.”

Stroder said the board has “frozen the tax rate” and people will be paying the same amount in taxes that they were paying the year prior.

Lacy agreed with Stroder.

“The school board is saying, this won’t increase your taxes, and it’s true,” Lacy said.

Lacy explained that while the taxes won’t increase, the cost for the new school will increase overall because of an expected half-percent increase in the interest rate of the bond.

“The rationale here is clear, and the school superintendent and the business administrator agree,” Lacy said. “The reason it is true (that the cost will increase) is that when the voters vote to approve a bond, whatever that government entity is that gets the bond, gets to take advantage of the state’s credit rating.”

Utah’s state credit rating is AAA (the lowest possible rating is BBB-).

Lacy continued, “But if the voters have not approved a bond issue, the entity — Grand County School District in this case — does not get to take advantage of that credit rating, and that will cause an increase in the interest rate in the bond and that is because it is more of a risk to the bond-holders.”

As an analogy, Lacy offered, “It’s just like getting a car loan. If you have perfect credit, you get a low interest, if you don’t, then the interest goes up.”

Stroder said the school district is finalizing its bond now, and because of its significant savings of $6.5 million, the district has “bonding capacity of up to half a million dollars because of the way they’ve managed their funding.”

However, Stroder warned that waiting for an election will cause an increase in cost to the new building. The Grand County Board of Education agreed that waiting on an election will incur costs to the project when the Federal Reserve moves forward between now and 2019 to increase interest rates.

On Nov. 21, Johnston, one of the people advertising to collect signatures in Moab to try to get the issue before voters, said the overall problem is not about whether or not a new school should be built, but about the “right to vote.”

“There are people who are working on this with us, who will vote yes on a new building,” he said. “They’re just not in favor of how the school board is doing it. It’s a simple right-to-vote issue. You should never fund a new school without letting the voters have some input.”

Johnston also disputed the need for a new building altogether, adding that the current aging building is “still in good standing” despite the asbestos.

Johnston, who attended the school in the building in the 1960s when it was used as the high school, said, “That school has been there 60 years, there’s no hurry, we don’t have to have one tomorrow … 60 years is a pretty young school still.”

Stroder said the current building is full of asbestos, has no steel-reinforced walls to pass a seismic test and is not fully ADA compliant for students with disabilities.

Despite those faults, Johnston said he thinks it’s wrong to tear down the building.

“Me, I would like to save the old high school,” he said. “We can’t have throwaway plastic bags, but we can throw away a whole building.”

He emphasized that his personal opinion to save the current building from demolition has nothing to do with placing the new school’s funding issue before voters in an election. So far, he said the group has collected three-fourths of about 1,200 signatures needed to try to certify the petition to place the issue on the ballot.

The new school is planned to open sometime in 2020, Stroder said. Currently, he estimates 150 to 170 students attend the Grand County Middle School.

As school district moves forward on new Grand County Middle School, residents want a voice in the process

“Now we’re moving forward.”