EDITORIAL: Pagosa’s Educational Legacy, Part Two

Read Part One

Despite the claim made repeatedly by County Commissioner Steve Wadley, Archuleta County is not a ‘poor community.’

As we all know, the word, “poor,” generally has a relative meaning. I am “poor” compared to someone else who is “rich…” or maybe to someone who is “middle class.” If we compared a typical working class family in Archuleta County to a typical family in, say, Nigeria… well, we probably wouldn’t seem so “poor” after all.

What if we compare an average Archuleta County household to a household in Denver? Or in, say, nearby Alamosa County… or in another nearby community?

If we visit Wikipedia, we can see Colorado’s 64 counties ranked by income, using U.S. Census Bureau as a primary information source. According to that web page, Colorado ranks fifth among U.S. states in terms of per capita income. In other words, we’re not a “poor state.”

Picking out a few relative examples from that list, we find the following “Median Household Incomes” listed:

Pitkin County: $64,502

Routt County: $60,876

State of Colorado: $56,456

Archuleta County: $56,068

United States: $51,914

Denver: $45,501

Montezuma County: $44,103

La Plata County: $41,103

Alamosa County: $35,935

Conejos County: $33,627

Granted, these are government figures, shared second-hand on a public website. It’s possible the numbers are not completely accurate. But maybe they indicate that, relatively speaking, Archuleta County is in fact one of the wealthier communities in Colorado… and in the U.S.A.

Yes, there are sectors of the Pagosa community who are dirt poor. Many of the folks employed in the retail and hospitality sectors here in Pagosa Springs are working two or three jobs to make ends meet. Many of those same working class families cannot afford to send their kids off to college or on to vocational training. So the kids end up thousands of dollars in debt, in their attempts to pay for higher education. The average college graduate in Colorado ends up with a degree and $25,064 in debt. (Source: Institute for College Access & Success.)

This level of debt does not necessarily reflect the kids who enroll in college but do not finish their degree. In Colorado, that’s about 50 percent of the kids who start as freshmen; most wind up with some level of debt, regardless of their incomplete effort.

Is there a better way to serve the future of Colorado and its young people?

The Colorado Mountain College campus under construction in Glenwood Springs in 1966.

Former Town Council member Mark Weiler had tested out his “Colorado Mountain College in Archuleta County” presentation a couple of weeks ago at an Archuleta Board of County Commissioners work session… and had received a positive response from the BOCC.

Probably some of the positive vibe resulted from Mr. Weiler’s promise that the future college would be self-funding, in the sense that it wouldn’t require a steady infusion of tax revenues coming from the County budget.

Mr. Weiler’s presentation to the Town Council on October 25 was a bit more polished, and slightly more informative.

Businessman Mark Weiler presenting to the Pagosa Springs Town Council on October 25, 2017.

He began his presentation by talking about the new (and experimental) Building Trades program that began offering a class at Pagosa Springs High School this fall. Our high school had offered a similar vocational program years ago, but as Mr. Weiler noted, it had been abandoned during the 1990s. The 2017 start-up program has been supported by a private fundraising effort.

“All the spots for the program filled in the first 24 hours. It has been wonderfully successful so far, and has opened the eyes of the School Board.”

This success had apparently led to Mr. Weiler’s interest in Colorado Mountain College.

At the instigation of local activist Annie Sewell, Mr. Weiler had arranged a phone conference with CMC Chief Operating Officer Matt Gianneschi and Archuleta School District Superintendent Linda Reed.

Mr. Weiler:

“Linda Reed had a list of 40 questions, about how we can overcome these problems. Matt answered every one of them.

“I spent all day Monday with the entire executive team of Colorado Mountain College. In essence, they started this [system of junior colleges] because there were no community colleges west of the Continental Divide.”

CMC is now a four-year college, with five bachelor degree programs, Mr. Weiler told us.

“They’ve developed a model that does not fall under the traditional umbrella of higher education in Colorado. 68 percent of their revenue comes from property tax revenue, 19 percent from tuition and only 11 percent from the state. This gives them broad latitude to create their own curriculum and certify their own teachers.”

Eight of the eleven CMC campuses are non-resident campuses, without student dorms. This appears to be the model that Mr. Weiler is promoting.

“Juniors and seniors in high school can take concurrent freshman and sophomore college courses while they are still in high school. Those courses are free, because they’re high school students.

“The full-time student tuition is $1,900 a year. Let that sink in for a minute. $1,900. And here’s the best part. Every student who graduates in the district gets a $1,000 scholarship. So, in essence, you can complete a four-year degree in two years, for $2,800.

“Unheard of.”

Mr. Weiler confessed that he rarely gets excited about things educational.

“Most of my own education was excruciatingly difficult. But this is a wonderful idea. We send our best and brightest hope for the future, out of our community. We send them out…

“I’ve gone to Linda Reed and I’ve sought the support of the School Board, and I’ve received 100 percent support to do the research on this project… We will have to ask to be annexed into the CMC district. We will have to show the support of our elected leaders and business leaders in our community. It’s about a two-year process. The [CMC executive team] likens it to climbing Mount Everest.  Climbing Mount Everest is simple.  But not easy.

“It’s simple. You just put one foot in front of the other, and keep going up. It’s that simple. But you want to do it with someone who’s already done it. Someone with a proven track record of success.”

Colorado Mountain College appears to have such a proven record of success.

Read Part Three…


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.