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School bond issue: Pros and cons

With two community forums held during the past week, the Archuleta School District 50 Joint hoped to present its argument for a bond initiative in November that would, if passed, fund a more than $50 million proposed consolidated campus providing a single location for all the district’s schools.

The proponents of that bond initiative face numerous questions, with the district needing to convince nearly 80 percent of registered voters in Archuleta County, who don’t have children enrolled in area schools, that the district is in dire enough need to ask for millions of dollars to pay for new buildings.

With just three months to make its case, the district took two steps this past week to reach out to voters.

During the two meetings, the district presented options and estimated costs for either renovating existing facilities or building new schools on recently purchased land (see sidebar, A-11). Yet several attendees at Monday’s meeting stated that the district had not come close to making its case due to a dearth of specifics — “The lack of what I would call hard data,” as attendee Bob Clinkenbeard said on Monday night.

On Sunday, however, the mood in the audience was largely less skeptical of the proposal and more supportive of the idea that the project would create jobs in an industry hit hardest by the recession. Representatives from A and P (Adolphson and Peterson, general contractors providing free initial consultation for the district) and Blythe Group (design consultants, also acting pro bono for the district) hosted the information session at Pagosa Brewing Company for local builders, contractors and building materials suppliers.

District officials were on hand to help present information on the need for new school buildings, as well as estimated costs of the project, as determined by the district’s School Facilities Advisory Committee (SFAC).

Likewise, A and P and Blythe Group representatives were there to convince members of the local construction industry that the district’s buildout would also mean local jobs.

A and P consultant Drew Russ told the audience that his company’s previous projects throughout Colorado had included local participation rates between 60 and 80 percent. Russ added that those projects provided local contractors the benefit of working under larger, general contractors in several ways: aside from the obvious economic benefits, contractors would have the opportunity to learn from larger contractor companies and would be able to apply those newly-acquired skills towards expanding their own businesses. Furthermore, Russ said that the advantage of hiring local contractors is that they would be familiar with work done on the buildings should warranty issues arise.

Nevertheless, Sunday’s meeting appeared to be something of a disappointment for the district and their A and P consultants, with fewer than 20 representatives from the local construction industry on hand to ask questions regarding the project, out of 100 the district expected to attend.

Opening the discussion period, district superintendent Mark DeVoti told the crowd that, on the construction end of the proposed project, “Our intention is to bring in as many of our contractors, builders and suppliers as possible to stimulate the economy.”

That sentiment was echoed by Ken Vickerstaff, chair of the SFAC. After citing a National Association of Realtors survey from March, 2011 (in which 75 percent of respondents answered that a high quality of public schools was either very or somewhat important for community characteristics), Vickerstaff added, “Obviously, you need jobs, too. This is about jobs.”

Meeting attendee Bill Hudson took the microphone, stating that the hosting consultants had a vested interest in advocating for the project due to the existing working relationship with the district.

Those consultants responded that they would have to enter into a Request For Proposal (RFP) and Request For Qualification (RFQ) process should the bond initiative pass. DeVoti added that Hudson had made that claim previously and had been told unequivocally that the consultants would be subjected to the RFQ and RFP processes along with all other competing bidders. DeVoti added that he was disappointed that Hudson continued to make the claim “in that blog of yours,” despite being provided with information that disputed that assertion.

Hudson then stated that, if another bidder won out in the RFP process, there would be no guarantee for local jobs.

Vickerstaff shot back, admonishing Hudson and telling him that no matter who would be selected as the general contractor for the project, the district would build in a stipulation that any contract would have to employ at least a minimum of 25 percent local labor and material in order to qualify for the bid.

Despite Hudson’s skepticism, the builders, contractors and building material suppliers largely confined their questions to costs, timelines and the scope of the project. Local contractor Hal Stevens, stating his support for the proposal, asked if the sale of district properties had been figured into overall cost estimates (if the bond initiative passes, the district would most likely put the downtown middle/junior high school property, elementary school property and 35 acres owned along Vista Boulevard on the market).

Vickerstaff responded that, while the district would most likely eventually sell off those properties and eventually help fund construction, returns from those sales had not been estimated nor had been added into the proposal as cost offsets.

“We (the SFAC) didn’t feel we were qualified to make property value assessments.”

Vickerstaff added that the SFAC had not built any other potential cost offsets into estimated prices since those funds were not certain. In response to a question by SUN staff, Vickerstaff said that while the potential for state and federal grants existed to fund proposed geothermal heating and greenhouses (to provide food for school lunches) and that although the district would pursue those dollars after the passage of a bond initiative, that money was not currently a given and, therefore, not part of overall cost estimates.

The next evening, the district hosted a community forum at the middle school library, again presenting information and estimated costs, while allocating the majority of the session for public comment and questions. Local resident Bob Hite was retained as a moderator, limiting participants to three minutes at the microphone.

Local teachers Sally High and Tracy Schenk first took the microphone, both telling the audience about their experiences working in the middle and junior high schools and the deficiencies of their respective buildings.

Both cited major structural deficiencies and lack of air circulation, with High stating that not only did she need to move large plastic trash cans collecting water from a leaking roof but that cracks in the foundation of her classroom were large enough to show underlying dirt.

“It has come to my attention that members of the public aren’t aware of the condition of our school buildings,” High said before listing the challenges she has faced dealing with the condition of her building and classroom.

Schenk also listed numerous problems in the middle school including severe plumbing issues with staff and student bathroom facilities, inadequate (and potentially dangerous) wiring, and, referring to an early 2010 incident when schools went into lockdown (following a report of a man with a gun in the vicinity), profound safety issues. Schenk also said that the concrete play area was unsafe for kids (“We get a lot of visits to the school nurse,” she said) and the inadequacy of water fountains — one for the downstairs, two for upstairs.

“You walk into that building and you can smell something,” Schenk added. “We don’t know what it is. Is it mold? What is it?”

Following the teachers, Hudson took the microphone, again implying that A and P and Blythe Group had inflated issues in order to create work for themselves.

Blythe Group representative Kevin Dekold responded angrily to Hudson, “Bill, this is the second night in a row you’ve said this publicly when you know that’s not true,” again explaining for the audience that the two consulting groups would have to go through the same RFQ and RFP process that would be required for other firms.

After stating that he thought the district had done, “a terrible job maintaining our schools,” Hudson cited a 2009 Colorado Department of Education assessment of the district’s buildings, asserting that the results of the study showed that the high school was in the worst condition of all the schools with the middle school rated as the best of the lot.

Later in the meeting, attendee Cynda Green repeated many of Hudson’s talking points and likewise, cited the same CDE assessment results, stating that the high school (the newest school building) had been rated the lowest, with the other three buildings rating much higher.

Either Hudson and Green had not read the study or had misinterpreted the results. In fact, that study rated the high school the highest out of the district’s four school buildings (3.74 overall with a condition rating of 3.5), the elementary and junior high schools rated lowest (elementary — overall 3.05, 3.23 condition rating; junior high — 3.07 overall, 3.01 condition rating). Furthermore, out of over 5,000 schools assessed by the CDE in 2009, the elementary, middle and junior high schools were ranked in the lowest 5 percent as far as condition and serviceability.

DeVoti did respond to Hudson’s contention that the district had not adequately addressed maintenance and repairs, claiming that the district’s capital improvement budget was insufficient to keep up with all the needed repairs throughout the district.

It was audience participant and district parent Tim Taylor who pointed out that the district would need to find some way to fund repairs even if a consolidated campus was not pursued.

“One thing that you haven’t addressed,” Taylor said, “is that, one way or another, you’re going to have a bond issue.”

In fact, DeVoti and Vickerstaff made it clear early during Monday’s meeting that they did not see renovation of the buildings as a viable option.

“These aren’t perfectly serviceable buildings,” Vickerstaff said at the start. “It will cost more to fix these buildings than to build new.”

Later, Vickerstaff claimed that the ratio of repair dollars to new-build dollars easily justified pursuing the construction of a consolidated campus.

However, it was to that issue that two of the final audience participants spoke.

“The repairs still have to be made, if it’s that bad,” said audience participant Barbara Rawlings before asking DeVoti how students would be accommodated during new construction — and how repairs would be made to existing buildings during the estimated two-year construction period.

“We would have to stay in those schools for two years,” DeVoti replied, saying that the district had set aside about $400 per pupil in its Capital Improvement maintenance budget.

“We can get through two years,” DeVoti said.

However, it was audience participant Linda Bunney who indicated what kind of an task the district would have in convincing voters to pass a bond initiative.

“I’m one of those 4,000 (the 80 percent of registered Archuleta County voters without children in the district) and I’m not convinced we need those new schools.”

Bunney added, “If you want to get that bond passed, you need to go out and talk to those 4,000 voters and convince them why you need those new schools.”

DeVoti responded that initiative supporters would soon “be knocking on doors” in an attempt to convince voters that building new schools is not only essential for the future of children in Archuleta County but would also provide a much-needed boost for the local economy.

By most indications, the district’s desire for a consolidated campus could be a hard sell. With the national economy appearing to teeter on the brink of a double-dip recession, some economists have argued that now is not the time to raise taxes. However, other economists have argued that the need for increased revenues (through higher taxes) and infrastructure investment is exigent in order to both improve the quality of life and towards creating jobs.

It is towards those latter economists that the district has apparently given a nod as it strives to provide a safer, healthier and more sustainable environment for area students while creating jobs and revenues for local contractors, builders and building material suppliers.

It is to the former economists that the district, if it hopes to pass its proposed bond initiative, must hail with a knock on the door and convince otherwise.

jim@pagosasun.com

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