The bus parking lot between the Basalt middle and elementary schools.
The bus parking lot between the Basalt middle and elementary schools. Credit: Brent Gardner-Smith / Aspen Journalism

BASALT – The Roaring Fork School District is in the beginning stages of a 10-year “facilities master planning” process, and the Basalt-El Jebel area could see significant physical changes as a result.

District officials are wrapping up the initial public-outreach stage of their planning and aim to have a recommended plan to the board of trustees by February 2015. The district runs 12 school campuses for roughly 5,200 students in Basalt, Carbondale and Glenwood Springs, so the plan will have impacts across the entire lower valley.

In Basalt, specifically, there are problems with aging buildings, a student population that’s already too large for the existing buildings and a short supply of parking. Furthermore, the town of Basalt is already immersed in its own downtown revitalization effort — a 10-member Downtown Area Advisory Committee is hard at work preparing a recommendation for future uses of the former Pan and Fork Mobile Home Park and other downtown properties — so careful coordination is needed between the two efforts.

“There are a lot of moving parts to this whole puzzle,” said Assistant Superintendent Shannon Pelland, who is leading the planning effort. “Everyone sees our schools as community facilities, so we want to make sure our plan reflects community needs.”

Various elementary, middle and high school classrooms and the Basalt Middle School auditorium already host community meetings and events during after-school hours, and the district collects a modest amount of rent for those uses. But there’s broad agreement that the auditorium at the middle school is antiquated, so both the town of Basalt and the district hope to create a new, centrally located auditorium/theater to serve both the schools and the broader community.

“The town definitely needs to be in on this conversation,” said Basalt Town Council member Rob Leavitt, who also sits on the school district’s facility design team. “Somewhere close to downtown would be a great location (for a performing arts center).”

As district officials work with their consultants and other stakeholders, a performing arts center of some kind is an important consideration. Aside from that, the school district also has a menu of long-term challenges and opportunities it wishes to address.

First, while student enrollment has remained relatively flat for the past several years, owing in part to the economic recession, Pelland said midvalley governments have already approved hundreds of as-yet-unbuilt residences, and an improving economy tends to put families in more of a child-rearing mood.

“Basalt Elementary is at capacity and Basalt Middle is over capacity,” Pelland said. “We’re definitely going to need a new school within a 10-year time frame, maybe five.”

This playground and soccer field in Blue Lake (with Missouri Heights in the background) is a likely location for a future school.
This playground and soccer field in Blue Lake (with Missouri Heights in the background) is a likely location for a future school. Credit: Bob Ward/Aspen Journalism

The most obvious location for a new school is an existing district-owned parcel in the Blue Lake subdivision on JW Drive, where a playground and soccer field are now located. The site was designated for a future school when the neighborhood was originally created. In order to fit a school on the site, the district will need to acquire some neighboring property and discussions are underway with the Crawford family, which owns much of unincorporated El Jebel.

“A school in that location would make sense,” Pelland said, adding that students from El Jebel, Willits and Missouri Heights live nearby. “Is it an elementary or K-8 school or something else? We don’t know.”

A new school in El Jebel presents some controversial issues. Community members have grown accustomed to the playing fields and won’t want to let them go. (Pelland did suggest that much of the current green space could remain, if the future school buildings can be located immediately adjacent.) Furthermore, as some attendees mentioned at a recent public meeting, sending some students to school in Basalt and others to El Jebel could divide the community.

Leavitt feels these concerns are surmountable, however. “A lot of communities have multiple elementary schools with fewer middle schools and high schools,” he said.

Leavitt also feels a school to serve kids in the El Jebel area “would take a lot of cars off Highway 82 in the morning.”

Traffic happens to be one of the main problems at the existing schools complex in Basalt. Numerous parents have complained loudly about parking and drop-off conditions at the elementary and middle schools. School-related traffic regularly clogs downtown Basalt in the mornings and afternoons.

To relieve this perennial problem, district officials hope to move a bus-parking facility from the Basalt campus to a properly zoned parcel in El Jebel next to an existing Eagle County Road and Bridge office. A new bus barn in El Jebel would free up considerable space between the Basalt elementary and middle schools,

“We’re really excited about that,” Pelland said, “and we feel like it’s within our grasp.”

Recent meetings also have included talk of trails and better connectivity in Basalt (also a topic for collaboration with town officials), and a possible public shuttle to help haul students, teachers and others between different school facilities during the day.

Numerous other issues, large and small, also are on the facilities agenda. Speaking generally, district officials said they want to create more common areas for students to gather, study and socialize. They also want more flexible, adaptable learning spaces that can be used in different ways and by different-sized groups.

Aspen Journalism’s Education Desk is collaborating with The Aspen Times to cover local school issues. The Aspen Times published this story on Nov. 11, 2014.