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Standing room only at school board meeting

Presiding over a packed room, the board of directors for Archuleta School District 50 Joint heard comments and ideas from teachers and parents regarding how the district might address a $1.35 million budget shortfall in 2010-2011.

Although proposals for going to a four-day school week and closing the Pagosa Springs Intermediate School were met with mixed reactions, an idea for raising the local sales tax to further fund the district seemed to have been met with general approval. Indeed, even before the meeting had adjourned, several attendees were exchanging numbers, looking to form an ad hoc committee advocating a ballot issue for raising the sales tax rate.

The idea, initially suggested by Board President Linda Lattin — referring to Steamboat Springs as a precedent (a 1.5-cent increase was approved there for schools) — would not be possible in Archuleta County, due to statutory restrictions, funding mechanisms being limited to county property taxes, bonds and impact fees. However, as a Home Rule municipality, the Town of Pagosa Springs could have latitude to (with voter approval) specify a percentage of sales tax revenues for school funding.

Faced with cuts in funding due to the state’s budget balancing mandate, declining area student enrollment, and a required increase in Public Employee Retirement Association (PERA) contributions, the district has been handed the difficult task of figuring out how to operate with more than a 10-percent decrease from the previous year’s budget. Sitting under that sword of Damocles, the district had proposed its own suggestions where the blade might fall, but called upon the public to help it decide which cuts would be warranted.

Fortunately, the public showed up en masse to voice its opinion and, with a standing-room-only crowd, ideas were only limited by the time constraints placed on each speaker (two minutes).

Opening the discussion, District Superintendent Mark DeVoti explained the fiscal realities facing area schools and the need for public input.

“We’re really being given a test as a community,” he said, adding, “we’re on a timeline; we plan on making our budget decisions by March.”

Two items led the agenda for open discussion: going to a four-day school week and closing the Pagosa Springs Intermediate School (PSIS). Following those two items, the agenda was opened to solicit suggestions from the public.

Despite an earlier recommendation by the District Accountability and Accreditation Committee (DAAC) at January’s board meeting to reject a four-day school week proposal, the board reintroduced the idea as a cost-saving measure — a suggestion met with opposition by most parents speaking, but supported by most teachers addressing the crowd.

Lily Mondragon, a district employee, spoke for most of the parents when she said, “By extending days, we could be putting kids at risk.”

Local parent Cheryl Bowdridge expanded that argument, saying, “They need an hour of sunlight to play,” adding, “I think there will be a lot of unattended children at home on Fridays and the state social services will have to come in to deal with it.”

Addressing how the pressure extra hours at school would affect younger children (students would be in school an additional 1.5 hours per day), parent Reta Jarvie said, “Seven hours is the maximum that younger children can take.”

However, some local teachers saw the value in a four-day school week.

“We’d have a lot more time to take trips with our kids,” said Debbie Ray, “I think there’s some real positives to it.”

Speaking to staff reductions, Tracy Shank said, “$125,000 is three teachers … think about classroom sizes thirty to thirty-five, because that’s what we’re talking about.”

In fact, districts that have gone to a four-day week have not had to cut teaching staff, nor have they shown a discernible increase or decrease in achievement scores. And, as Shank pointed out, studies have shown that attendance rates for students and staff improve during a four-day school week, with staff given one business day a week to visit doctors or banks, while students have one less day to skip.

DeVoti was candid as far as certain savings realized by a four-day school week, saying, “In talking with other districts and their projected savings, well, they were overestimated.”

By some reports, the district estimates that a four-day school week would save about $125,000-$130,000.

According to some studies, parents and teachers surveyed in districts that have been with a four-day school week for several years report anywhere between 80- to 90-percent of community members favor continuing with the schedule.

However, students in question were not so sure. Sixth-grader Meadow Nicely said, “Everyone’s tired after seven or eight hours of school, it really does make a difference.”

Unwilling to accept cuts and everything they entailed, Crista Munro said, “I don’t want to give up on the mill levy idea,” adding, “the value that we put on our schools is the value that we put on our community.”

Calling for a grassroots movement to propose a mill levy increase, Munro tapped into the sentiment of some parents — but not all.

“I’ve been taxed more than I can stand,” said Jeff Jones, in response to a suggestion of raising the mill levy, “There’s a reason why the town and county waived their fees and if PAWDS would waive their fees, we’d get things building again in this county. “

Still, most attendees spoke in support of raising some kind of tax (at first a mill levy, Lattin’s suggestion of a sales tax increase, later) as a means of funding the district’s way out of its budget crisis.

A proposal to close PSIS, however, was met with ambivalence. According to DeVoti, the district estimates closing the school would result between $150,000-175,000 in savings, mostly in cuts to support staff.

“We based that on extremely, extremely conservative heating cost estimates.”

Fifth-grade teacher Chantelle Kay pointed to high achievement at PSIS and the community that had developed there. “I’m afraid that, if we move to the elementary school ... the collaborative piece will take a hit as well.”

Asked if the district would consider closing a school that had exhibited high achievement scores, DeVoti responded, “I can emphatically say that the school could be the highest scoring school in the state and we’d still be having this discussion tonight.”

However, other concerns in closing PSIS regarded developmental differences between elementary school students and fifth-graders and, especially, sixth-graders and junior-high students.

“I’m a statistic,” said Amber Montoya, “I was a mother at sixteen. Having a sixth grader in with an eighth-grader, that’s insane. I don’t want my daughter to be a statistic, to be a mother at sixteen.”

Closing PSIS would, according to DeVoti, bring the district in line with middle schools throughout the state.

Sixth-grade teacher Trish Davis reminded the audience that closing PSIS was not the only cost-saving idea on the table, saying, “There’s two pages of other things to look at and I encourage you to look at the other things.”

With the fate of PSIS discussed and, for all intents and purposes, left undecided, discussion moved to other ideas. Audience members made numerous suggestions, such as moving to a semi-track system (i.e. a shorter summer break and longer winter break, to save on heating costs), “pay-to-play” (fees for co-curricular participants) and salary cuts — among others.

However, it was an increase in sales tax that seemed to appeal to most of the audience. Unlike an increase in the mill levy (which would only effect property owners), a sales tax increase would effect all residents — and visitors — alike, spreading the sting out evenly.

As the meeting adjourned, parents and teachers huddled together, discussing the next steps, exchanging contact information and planning how to bring a matter of a sales tax increase to the voters.

With the district planning next year’s budget in the coming weeks, however, a sales tax increase would be too little, too late. Whether going to a four-day school week or closing PSIS would be a portion of a solution to the district’s budget woes (the savings would only amount to about 20 percent of the total funding shortfall), area resident Ken Bowles reiterated the obvious to everyone in the room.

“Everybody’s going to have to sacrifice,” he said, “and that’s going to be the way it works.”

jim@pagosasun.com