Monument-area residents are crying foul over plans to build a charter school, saying a developer has leveraged his having served on a local education board to benefit financially.
Some residents near Colorado 105 and Colorado 83 say that developer Matt Dunston crossed an ethical line when he purchased the land southeast of the intersection, knowing from his time on Monument Academy’s Board of Directors that the charter school had been eyeing the parcel for a new school site.
Dunston, who developed the neighboring Preserve at Walden subdivisions with his brother, Bill, now plans to donate about half of the roughly 65-acre property to Monument Academy and build out the rest with homes and a few businesses.
“It all seems fairly underhanded and deceptive,” said Nick Anderson, who lives near the site. He and other area residents say the appearance of a conflict of interest adds to other concerns that the project would “degrade the overall quality of life” for those living in the area and flood surrounding thoroughfares with traffic the roads aren’t equipped to handle.
But Dunston said developers often work with school districts and charter schools, helping to bring projects to fruition with the acumen to address construction-related challenges, such as traffic and utilities.
“It’s not even in the universe of impropriety,” said Dunston, who bought the property from Lewis-Palmer School District 38 in Monument. “It’s exactly how things do happen. If you don’t work with developers, schools don’t happen anywhere.”
He said the new school will come with traffic improvements and that he’ll do what he can to minimize the impact on nearby neighborhoods.
Monument Academy plans to break ground on the new school within the next 30 days, said Mark McWilliams, a member of the charter school’s Board of Directors. The school is slated to open in 2020 and will have about 600 middle and high school students. Construction will be paid for by a bond financed with money that the state provides at a per-student rate, he said.
The charter school’s expansion will help relieve the mounting pressure that D-38’s crowded schools are facing as developments crop up in the Monument area, McWilliams said. “This is a really good answer to that problem,” he said.
Residents told The Gazette they have long known a school was slated for the site, but only recently discovered that the rest of the parcel would include residential and commercial development. They were surprised, too, to learn that Monument Academy is negotiating with the YMCA of the Pikes Peak Region to allow the organization to open a new facility on the campus.
“It’s all happened really fast,” said Walden resident Jason Callaway. “It kind of feels like it’s all being done very quickly and without informing the neighborhood or the area at all.”
Some residents have also expressed skepticism. Brian Risley, chairman of the Board of Directors of the YMCA of the Pikes Peak Region, was chosen as the architect of record for the school project.
Risley could not be reached last week for comment.
A petition on change.org has nearly 1,000 virtual signatures from opponents of the plan for the new school.
Vanessa Gentry, who lives in the Walden community with her husband and two children, said her family plans to sell their home and move because of the development.
“All the traffic it’s going to bring — I don’t think it’s going to be good for the neighborhood or us,” she said. “Since all that’s coming, we don’t want to stay.”
D-38 approved the expansion of Monument Academy in November 2017. At the time, Monument Academy Executive Director Don Griffin told The Tribune that the charter school was considering three sites for the new school, including the one near highways 83 and 105.
Dunston’s resignation from the school board was announced in May 2018, before Monument Academy made a final decision on the location for the new school, McWilliams said.
The D-38 Board of Education approved selling the property to Dunston last fall, with the condition he donate some of the land to Monument Academy for the new school.
The district once considered building on the property, but a planning committee decided the location was “not a viable option” for the district a few years ago, said Matthew Clawson, president of the D-38 Board of Education. In addition to finding challenges with traffic and securing water and wastewater services for the location, the district determined it would not have been a good spot for a school considering where population growth would occur, Clawson said.
When the district first tried to sell the property, about 50 people expressed interest, he said. But no one offered the site’s appraised value of $1.25 million until Dunston bid on the property, Clawson said.
“The only reason why Matt Dunston ended up with the property is that he offered the highest amount to purchase it. We didn’t give any discounts on the rate,” Clawson said.
“Anyone that’s willing to put $1.2 million dollars down and essentially give a large amount of property to a charter academy — that’s a very kind thing for him to do.”
But, to local residents including Callaway, the turn of events “seems shady on multiple levels.”
“Now, he’s finding ways of profiting from this,” Callaway said of Dunston.
The El Paso County Planning Commission approved the school’s location last month.
A permit from the Colorado Department of Transportation is still needed because the site is off two state highways.
The Walden Corporation, which serves the neighboring subdivisions, will provide water and sewer to the school, Dunston said.
If the YMCA of the Pikes Peak Region wants to open a location on the campus, Monument Academy must seek the county commissioners’ approval for a “special use” to use school facilities, said county planner Nina Ruiz.
Dunston will likely also have to get zoning approvals to develop the rest of the site, but that’s “a long way off,” the developer said.
“My primary motive and my impetus for all of this is to get involved so that this school and facility is the best that it can be for the Walden community,” he said.