EDITORIAL: Pagosa’s Educational Legacy, Part One

Colorado Mountain College now offers the third most affordable bachelor’s degrees in the nation. It’s home to the Isaacson School for New Media and is planning to add programs in avalanche technology and action sports in fall 2017…

— Colorado Mountain College website

The Archuleta School District (ASD) has scheduled a series of monthly meetings in connection with some (as-yet-vague) plans to do something or other about their “facilities.” The apparent plan, at the moment, is to welcome ideas from the community — in particular, from a small hand-picked group of local professionals — before settling on some kind of proposal.   Perhaps next summer?

The implication, as far as I can tell, is that the District will be asking the public for some additional tax money. But at this point, that’s only an implication.

One thing is clear, however. The ASD School Board wants to hear from the public. They’ve even been offering pizza and salad as an incentive to attend these public meetings. (I found the pizza very decent. Salad is salad.)

This desire to hear from the public seems to reflect a political change within the district. ASD did not have a desire to hear from the public six years ago, when — under the leadership of former Superintendent Mark DeVoti — they placed a $98 million bond issue on the ballot to fund a K-8 “mega-campus” on a rocky hillside just west of the Pagosa Springs High School. (The actual construction cost included in that proposal was $49 million.)

Perhaps they should have listened to the public, first? That bond issue was rejected by a 3-to-1 margin — making it one of the most embarrassing school bond issue failures in the state of Colorado in recent years.

Following that loss at the polls, ASD formed a citizen group to discover why the District had so utterly failed to win the hearts of the taxpaying public. When the citizen study group presented its findings, the School Board summarily rejected the report.

We now have a new School Board… and new administrative staff… and a new approach to encouraging citizen involvement. But it’s one thing to have an honest desire to hear the public’s ideas concerning school district facilities… and quite another thing for the public to actually show up at meetings where that particular topic is being discussed. (Even with a pizza enticement.)

Here’s a photo of the ASD “facilities meeting” I attended on October 26.

The audience (six people plus a couple of media reporters) was nearly outnumbered by the District staff and Board members seated at the front of the room. Nevertheless, the hour-long discussion was lively, and the moderator — School Board member Brooks Lindner — allowed the conversation to take some unexpected turns.

For one thing, we ended up talking at some length about three (rather exciting?) educational ideas directly related to public education, but perhaps not yet on the radar of the district’s PAT — Planning Assistance Team — a citizen group that’s expected to make some kind of “facilities plan” recommendation to the School Board next spring or summer.

Mr. Lindner told us that preliminary research conducted by Colorado-Springs-based consultants RTA Architects estimated the very-long-range needs of the Pagosa school system at over $28 million — with the most pressing needs (to be addressed “over the next 0-25 years,”) priced at around $4.5 million.

As we can see, both of those numbers are substantially less than the $49 million asked by former Superintendent Mark DeVoti’s team in 2011. I assume the $4.5 million number would apply to minor remodeling projects rather than totally new facilities.

It’s a good thing to have a range of options… and the PAT has been developing, with the help of RTA Architects, a list of options related to the future of our four public school buildings. On October 2, the PAT discussed five “scenarios” proposed by the architects, ranging in scope from code upgrades and relatively minor renovations (Scenario A) to completely new school buildings (Scenarios B, C, D, E.)

None of the six audience members who attended the October 26 community meeting at the PLPOA Clubhouse seemed too interested in those five scenarios, however.

We had bigger fish to fry, you might say.

One of those bigger ‘facilities’ fish — namely, a college campus for Archuleta County — is currently being wrangled by Pagosa businessman Mark Weiler, the recently retired President of Parelli Natural Horsemanship.  Our community currently provides no local college opportunities for young people seeking higher education. Some years ago, the Archuleta County Education Center and the School District did attempt to offer some college classes in conjunction with Pueblo Community College; the attempt was judged a failure by those involved.

Does Mr. Weiler have a healthier fish on the line?

A bit of history:

On November 2, 1965, the voters of five Colorado counties approved the formation of a junior college district — by more than a 2-to-1 margin. The large size of the district was based on the requirements of the State of Colorado. The Governing Committee unanimously adopted the name “Colorado Mountain College” and the rural towns of Leadville and Glenwood Springs were selected as the two initial campus locations.

Spring Valley ranchers and landowners donated 588 acres for the West Campus.

This year, Colorado Mountain College is celebrating its 50th Anniversary. From their special “50th Anniversary” website:

From the beginning, Colorado Mountain College has flourished because local citizens have valued the way education can enliven their communities. In the early 1960s, visionaries sought approval for a college district. Taxpayers caught the vision and overwhelmingly voted to fund it. The two original campuses were built simultaneously with modular buildings transported from Denver. Classes opened on October 2, 1967 to the sound of carpenters’ finishing cuts. Within five years, classes were also offered in Aspen, Rifle, Salida, Eagle County and Summit County.

CMC now serves nearly 20,000 students across rural Colorado, with a rather unique — and affordable — business model. Their website claims that a CMC education is “the third most affordable bachelor’s degrees in the nation.”

An attractive model for Archuleta County?

Something our local School District could possibly embrace?

Something local taxpayers might vote to fund?

Mr. Weiler has made recent presentations to the Archuleta Board of County Commissioners and to the Pagosa Springs Town Council, urging them to consider the feasibility of the Colorado Mountain College model.

Read Part Two…

Bill Hudson

Bill Hudson founded the Pagosa Daily Post in 2004 in hopes of making a decent living writing about local politics. The hope remains.