EDITORIAL: School District Seeking Input on Possible Tax Increase, Part Two

Read Part One

As we noted in Part One, the Archuleta School District (ASD) has been studying the condition of its current facilities for the past couple of years, and last spring the District appointed a volunteer “Planning Assistance Team” (PAT) to help formulate a “Facilities Master Plan.”

This plan will presumably be different from the “Facilities Master Plan” that taxpayers paid for back in 2008, and which has been sitting on a shelf gathering dust for the past decade. (You can download that Master Plan here.)

I’ve attended a few of the “facilities” presentations hosted by ASD over the past couple of months (and reported on some of them… here, for example.) The most recent public hearing was hosted on November 16, where we heard an introduction to the planning process from Superintendent Linda Reed.

Here are a few of Ms. Reed’s comments:

“Over the last three years… no, actually, over the last five years, our enrollment has increased every year. Last year, our enrollment increased by over 100 students… and I was just looking at the numbers this morning… in 2015-16 we were at 1372 kids, and this year we are at 1525. So, for a small town, that’s a pretty significant increase in enrollment…”

Increasing enrollment is a good thing to talk about, if you are hoping to get the voters to pay for additional buildings.

What Ms. Reed did not mention, however, is that most of the enrollment increase seems to have come, not from Pagosa Springs, but from parents in nearby Dulce, New Mexico, enrolling their children in our Archuleta County schools. She also did not mention that, while District enrollment is indeed higher than it was in 2015-2016, it is still well below the District’s enrollment back in 2006.

According to the Colorado Department of Education (CDE) website, ASD had 1635 students enrolled in 2005-2006. With the coming of the Great Recession, ASD enrollment fell by about 20 percent, to a low of 1323 in the 2013-2014 school year. We still haven’t recovered from that decline, even after perhaps 100 students from New Mexico.

Ms. Reed also talked briefly about ‘BEST’ grants:

“I’m starting my ninth year with the District, and during that time we’ve replaced the roof on the Elementary School, on the 7-8 building, and on the 5-6 building. The 5-6 building we did two summers ago, and in order to do that, we applied for what’s called a ‘BEST’ grant.”

The BEST program (“Building Excellent Schools Today”) dates from 2008, and it often offers grants to school districts that can get voters to approve matching funding for expansion or renovation projects.

Back at the start of the Great Recession, the state of Colorado was looking for ways to subsidize the state’s struggling construction industry, and one of the ideas they came up with was a massive grant program to build and renovate public schools. State leaders knew that the public generally supports the idea of “excellent schools” and would be open to increasing their local taxes if the state would match part of the construction costs. Since 2008, Colorado’s BEST program has matched about $400 million in local taxes with state funding of about $848 million, for a total of about $1.25 billion spent on new and renovated schools. The funding has been mainly in the form of “Certificate of Participation” loans, meaning that the education system is making interest payments on these projects.

The amount allocated to BEST grants has fallen somewhat in recent years, and some folks think the program will eventually disappear.

Ms. Reed noted the financial benefits of this program.

“We went after what was called a ‘cash grant’ so we were able to get the state to pay 38 percent of the cost of the new roof on the 5-6 building…

“The reason we are going through the [Facilities Master Plan] process at this time is because, in order to apply for a BEST grant, we have to have our application turned in by February 23. So this process — after the [public input meeting] on December 5 — the PAT will be meeting in January to take all of the feedback, from this meeting, and from that meeting, and really analyze it, in line with what they have identified as priorities, and come up with a recommendation to the School Board.”

Back in Part One, we mentioned ASD’s planned public meeting on December 5, which will take place in the High School Commons during the first PSHS home basketball games, from 4-8:30pm. As I understand it, the PAT and school officials will set up some informational displays and will welcome folks to give input on the six “scenarios” that were first made available to the public on November 16.

You can download the one-page spreadsheet of the scenarios here.

As I said before, I am fascinated by the way our local governments approach the idea of “public engagement.”

Let’s imagine the scene on December 5. Plenty of local folks will be walking through the High School Commons, having come to watch some basketball games in the adjoining gymnasium. They will see some colorful informational charts on display, and learn that the School District is proposing to make some kind of investment in its facilities. They will be able to weigh in, casually, with their opinions.

This constitutes a huge improvement — in terms of the sheer number of people who might become informed about, and engaged in, a public tax increase issue — compared to how little public input our local governments have typically solicited in the past. In particular, it’s a radical departure from how the School District staged the “mega-campus” tax increase request in 2011. It’s also very different from how the Archuleta Board of County Commissioners handled the decision to seek a $26.6 million tax increase this past November. Both of those attempts failed to win popular support.

But should we also consider the “depth” of the public engagement?

Here we have Joe and Betty, come to watch their daughter Jill play varsity basketball against Salida High School, and they find themselves urged to give input on which “scenario” they prefer. Although they are not provided any information about what any of the scenarios might cost, or where any of the proposed buildings might be located, they find themselves drawn into the discussion and are willing to note their preferences.

We wonder if Joe and Betty, will have given five minutes of thought, prior to walking through the door, into the massively expensive projects the District might be proposing?  Can the public truly become “informed and engaged” in the space of time between two basketball games?

I ask those questions because this four-hour event appears to be the only time the School District is going to seek broad public input, prior to applying for a BEST grant in February, according to the published District timeline.

In what sense will casual input from dozens of high school basketball fans, on a Tuesday evening, be helpful to the wider Pagosa Springs community — when a multi-million-dollar tax increase might hang in the balance?

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.