The El Paso County Planning Commission voted 3 to 2 last week to approve building the new Monument Academy High School at the intersection of highways 83 and 105. Residents of the nearby Black Forest community attended a public hearing out of concern that the new school will generate hazardous traffic conditions on their roads.
The school will be a new addition to the Tri-Lakes region.
Monument Academy charter schools, located in Lewis-Palmer School District 38, only serve students from preschool through the eighth grade. Don Griffin, executive director of Monument Academy, told The Tribune that the high school will meet parents’ demands for teaching higher grade levels.
Monument Academy High School, which will also include a middle school and a YMCA, is expected to cost $23 million. Griffin said construction will begin by June 15 and that classes will start in August 2020. The new school will house 500 high school students and 350 middle school students, according to the Monument Academy website.
Developer Matt Dunston sees Monument Academy High School as an opportunity to solve the issue of overcrowding in Lewis-Palmer. Some schools in the district will be adding modular classrooms in the 2019-20 school year to increase capacity and make room for the growing student population.
Voters rejected funding measures in November 2018 that would’ve given the school district funds to build a new elementary school and make other needed renovations.
“Monument Academy could be a bright spot of growing capacity in the district,” Dunston told The Tribune.
Resident Mike Morris started a petition on change.org against building the school at the proposed location in Black Forest. As of Friday, more than 800 people had signed the petition, which argues that that the high school will generate an excessive and dangerous amount of traffic at the intersection of highways 83 and 105.
The petition says that the traffic could result in more accidents, especially during foggy and wintry conditions with snow and ice. Another concern is that the traffic may block neighboring communities from evacuating during a wildfire.
Steve Gutman, who also lives in Black Forest, attended the public hearing last week for the proposed high school. He estimates that 75 to 100 people attended the meeting.
“This is a real testament to how vitally engaged everyone is in the community,” Gutman said.
Gutman’s concerns are not with the school itself, he said, but with the increase in traffic that the new school will bring with it. He said he’d feel better about the school moving into his neighborhood if the roads were improved to handle the extra traffic.
Monument Academy’s consultants and engineers have met with the Colorado Department of Transportation to minimize the school’s traffic impact, Griffin and Dunston said.
“It’s very important to me that the utmost effort is put into creating a safe road design and to prevent intrusion into the nearby community,” Dunston said.
He said the school will include adequate turn lanes to prevent traffic backups on the highways and side streets. The parking lot will also be large enough to accommodate vehicles coming to and from the school, he said.
“The Monument Academy team is absolutely stellar in seeing to it that this school won’t adversely affect surrounding roads,” he said.
Michelle Peulen, a communications manager for CDOT, said there have been no traffic impact studies of the area near the proposed high school, yet.
“We’re extremely early in the process,” she told The Tribune.
Peulen explained that CDOT deals primarily with roadways and access points into properties. CDOT will partner with the property owners to determine the best ways to make sure that traffic is running smoothly.
“Safety is at the top of our list,” she said.
Gutman said he trusts that CDOT’s engineers will ease traffic surrounding the proposed high school.
“I’m very concerned that a rush to judgment is being made here,” he said of the planning commission’s approval of building a high school near his home. “But we’re confident that CDOT will hear our concerns. Hopefully, we’ll have the safest situation here if the high school does move forward.”
But focusing only on traffic detracts from the main concern, Dunston said, which is that Lewis-Palmer doesn’t have enough space in its schools for growing enrollment. This new high school could give Lewis-Palmer the extra space it needs, he said.