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School district to pursue $49 million bond issue

Following a unanimous vote by the board of the Archuleta School District 50 Joint to approve ballot language for a $49 million bond initiative, board president Linda Lattin addressed remaining attendees of Tuesday night’s special meeting, saying, “It’s not that your statements did not go unheard ... But it is our job to put it out to all the voters ... it’s not that it fell on deaf ears, we hear you, we do, and we still have to take it out to all the registered voters in this county. This is our job.”

Lattin was referring to public comments regarding the ballot initiative made prior to the vote. Comments and questions from the audience were limited to three minutes, as were answers or rebuttals made by school district officials or advisors for the initiative.

The bond initiative follows recommendations from the School Facilities Advisory Committee (SFAC) to pursue the construction of new schools on property purchased by the district last December, adjacent to the high school location on the south side of town. As reported in the Aug. 25 edition of The SUN, the SFAC based its recommendation on Colorado Department of Education (CDE) assessments of the elementary, middle and junior high schools that suggested costs of ongoing repairs and maintenance that, the SFAC concluded, would, in the long run, be more expensive than the construction of new buildings.

Among the many problems the SFAC (and CDE) found with the facilities, major issues included: proximity to U.S. 160; roofing issues; inadequate security during lockdown incidents (largely due to distances between facilities); lack of fire sprinklers, alarms and suppression systems; insufficient ventilation and poor air quality; and the inability to upgrade technology (due to outdated electrical systems).

Although opponents of the initiative brought up several reasons for not supporting the bond, none of them directly addressed specific infrastructure issues. Arguments against the bond largely dealt with the potential economic impact, as well as the perception that the district had not done enough to tap alternate funding opportunities.

In fact, the first seven speakers at Tuesday’s meeting spoke in opposition to the initiative (with two speakers reading prepared statements), to largely set the tone for the meeting’s public input portion. Opponents speaking roughly outnumbered supporters by about a four-to-one ratio.

After comparing the district’s proposal to the Dry Gulch “fiasco,” Bruce Dryburgh told the board that he felt that, with more time and public participation, the initiative would stand a better chance with the voters. However, referring to facility infrastructure problems, Dryburgh said, “It doesn’t make sense to me for us to give you another fifty to eighty million dollars if you can’t maintain what you have right now.”

Up next, Jim Huffman read a prepared statement that laid the groundwork for several talking points that would be repeated by several of the other speakers opposing the initiative.

In part stating, “While the board and the district profess to be concerned about the students in Archuleta (county), in my opinion, they are not concerned about the taxpayers.”

Huffman then read several reasons to support his opinion. Criticizing the district for not participating in the “Labato v. State of Colorado” lawsuit, Huffman accused the district of not addressing state funding formula inequities. Huffman also accused the district of not pursuing BEST (Building Excellent Schools Today) funding to offset construction costs. Pointing to a Sanford, Colo. (Conejos County) school bond initiative funded largely with BEST dollars, the majority of the proposed $22 million project in Sanford funded if Conejos County voters approve a bond initiative for a $1.1 million match. According to Huffman, BEST funds would pay $47 million of the district’s $49 million proposed bond.

“Instead, the district is trying to push the entire amount on the taxpayers with this school bond issue,” he said.

Huffman concluded, “I don’t really believe the district is interested in public input,” as he finished addressing the board and the audience.

However, Huffman’s talking points regarding BEST and Lobato v. State of Colorado may have missed the mark as far as full details of both matters are concerned. As to BEST funding, those dollars can only be pursued once a match is reasonably assured, i.e. through a bond initiative. Furthermore, BEST funds (allocated exclusively to economically depressed communities) are distributed through a formula determined by the economic conditions of a district.

The ratio of BEST funds for Archuleta County schools would be far less generous than what could be awarded to Conejos County — in fact, a 64-percent match required for a 36-percent award. Language stipulating the pursuit of BEST funding, as well as other grants, was built into the ballot language approved later in the meeting by the board.

Huffman also appeared to not understand the intent of the “Labato v. State of Colorado” suit. In essence, the suit challenges the constitutionality of the Colorado school finance system, specifically the amount the state funds its public schools and how that lack of sufficient funding violates the constitutional rights of local school boards to direct the quality of instruction in their districts.

Should the suit be adjudicated against the state, the per-pupil formula for district funding may or may not be addressed; losing the case would merely direct the state to revisit its policies for school funding.

In early August, the board voted unanimously to allocate $1,500 as a contribution to the suit, joining other districts as plaintiffs in the case.

Later in the meeting, SUN staff asked district supervisor Mark DeVoti why the district had delayed joining the lawsuit (filed in 2005).

“I don’t know why,” DeVoti replied, stating that the suit was filed prior to the beginning of his appointment as superintendent.

Barbara Rawlings also read a statement, providing another talking point that unified the opposition to the bond initiative — the economic climate, both nationally and locally.

“At the same time that businesses are closing their doors and people are moving elsewhere for jobs, you choose to attempt to raise the cost of living and working in Pagosa Springs,” Rawlings said.

Speaking to three options the district had previously proposed (do nothing, repair and renovate, and build new schools), Rawlings suggested the district consider a fourth option: “Do maintenance and minimal upgrading and see what the economy does in the next two to three years.”

The issue of the economy was also raised by Mark Weiler who, after mentioning a proposed county mill levy increase (see related Page 1 article) and how much that proposal would raise taxes on the Parelli campus (a total $27,000 yearly increase, according to Weiler), told the board, “I count the number of vacant commercial properties, nearly 40 percent vacancy here in commercial real estate. That’s where the jobs are created.

“The important issue here,” Weiler continued, “If you burden the commercial community with costs they cannot bear, you destroy your community’s job lifeline from within. It is the unintended consequence of your good deeds and intentions.”

With criticisms of facility maintenance and a perceived lack of transparency by the district regarding the bond initiative process lightly touched upon, opponents of the bond initiative mostly stuck to their various common talking points: delay in joining the lawsuit against the state, failure to pursue additional funding (outside countywide property taxes) and the economy.

Attendees speaking in favor of the initiative, conversely, addressed the condition of schools and the need for better facilities.

Sixth-grade teacher Heather Callahan said that the contention published in a media source was wrong, regarding the need for repairs. “We do need roofs,” she said, adding that she had brought water from a water fountain in the Intermediate school that was rust-colored due to the aging plumbing in that building, asking attendees if they’d like their children to drink that water — much less drink it themselves.

Callahan also took issue with that same media outlet’s “disparaging remarks” that district employees were not members of the public. “I think I am,” she said. “I pay taxes and I shop here and I do say I produce children because they are our clients here and I am a productive member of this society.”

Adding that she is also involved in various volunteer activities in the community, Callahan finished her objection, “And there are so many teachers just like me. We are not ringers.”

Speaking for the Daily Post, Cynda Green responded, “Disparaging remarks. I don’t believe people who work for the school district are the public. So you can take that or leave it.”

Apparently agnostic on the issue, Bob Scott nonetheless conceded, “Generally, I don’t have a problem with building the campus, but I’m also an individual that believes that we’re in an era of what I call austerity. “

Saying that he felt the focus should be on quality education, Scott went on to say, “Every enterprise has a responsibility to do as much as they can to make sure that people are held accountable for whatever it is their job is,” concluding with, “Expect more and get more return on investment.”

As the number of comments at the meeting far outweighed the number of questions, the board and project consultants had little time during Tuesday’s meeting to present arguments for pursuing the bond; what was said in defense of the initiative was mostly a repetition of just a few previously stated talking points — the cost of building a consolidated campus versus the expense of ongoing maintenance and their perceived educational advantage of that campus. However, no one on the board addressed the most common theme of the evening: the impact of the bond on the local economy (either positive or negative).

While the discussion on Tuesday night remained civil, none of the participants appeared to have heard anything that would shift their stance on the issue of a bond initiative.

Following the close of public input, the board spent little time discussing the proposed ballot language for the initiative. Consultant Troy Bernberg told the board that the bond would be set for a 25-year term with an amount set up to $85 million (with interest payments), stating that he was being conservative, allowing for contingencies in repayment terms. Bernberg also explained various options should the district sell property or secure further grant funding.

After agreeing on broadening terms that would include various funding options outside the bond — not exclusive to BEST applications — the board unanimously approved a motion to approve the ballot language.

The ballot language for the bond initiative is due for submission to the Archuleta County Clerk and Recorder by Sept. 2.

Despite a sample of voters at Tuesday’s meeting that clearly seemed skewed towards opponents, the board must have realized that the real work is just beginning if it hopes to pass the bond Nov. 1.

jim@pagosasun.com

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