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

Read Part One

Wednesday, November 29, was a special day for this Daily Post editor.

At 8am, I had a chance to drink coffee with one of Pagosa’s consummate volunteers, Lisa Scott, to talk about the subject of this editorial series: the Archuleta School District’s ongoing ‘Facilities Master Plan’ process. Ms. Scott has been a member of the District’s Planning Assistance Team (PAT) since last spring, and has made an effort to keep that planning group from heading off into the Ozone.

More about that subject in a moment.

Then at 9am, I had coffee with Yvonne Wilcox, to discuss the ‘Gainstorming’ process she’s working through — as a volunteer — with our Archuleta Board of County Commissioners, as the BOCC looks back on its failed attempt to increase our sales tax, and as it develops ‘Plan B’ for the mostly-abandoned County Courthouse.

At 10am, I was back home with my granddaughter Simone, gluing up an ‘Educational Tree Topper’ for the Christmas tree Pagosa Peak Open School will be entering in the Festival of Trees. (That event starts today, November 30, from noon until 6pm at the Ross Aragon Community Center, where you can vote for your favorite tree. Read more about the Festival here.)

By 2pm, the volunteer tree decorating job was complete and I was back working on my editorial for Thursday. Then at 5pm, our ad hoc affordable housing group held its weekly meeting at Riff Raff Brewing. (I highly recommend drinking beer, if you are going to engage in a discussion of the Pagosa housing crisis.)

Pagosa Springs offers plenty of opportunities for volunteering, if that’s your inclination. But whether it is or isn’t, you still might be interested in learning more about the School District’s new ‘Facilities Master Plan’… considering that it might — and I say, might — come packaged with a proposed property tax increase on next November’s ballot.

We can talk, tomorrow, about the way a couple of unrelated (and seemingly harmless) School Board issues were transformed into a potential multi-million-dollar tax increase. But we should first discuss the Blythe Group’s 2008 ‘Facilities Master Plan’…

The year was 2007, and the Archuleta School District (ASD) was wondering if they should start building some new schools. The enrollment in 2000 had been 1558 students, and by 2005, student numbers had hit 1635. The School Board decided it was time to hire some architects to analyze the District facilities and create a ‘Facilities Master Plan’ that would be a ‘living document’ — constantly updated to reflect the District’s needs and desires.

Oddly enough, however, ASD enrollment in 2006 had declined slightly — dropping from 1635 to 1611. Even more surprisingly, the student numbers in 2007 had fallen to 1511, which was less than the District’s 1998 enrollment.

Surely, this was just a ‘blip’ on the radar?

Nevertheless, the School Board proceeded with its plans to have Grand Junction-based Blythe Group spend some time in Pagosa Springs, assessing our facilities needs. The visits began with a meeting between the consultants and a ‘Citizens Committee’ who had been appointed to help ‘guide’ the Master Plan process, by keeping everything aligned with our local community values. Here’s a list of the folks appointed to the ‘Citizens Committee’:

Bob Bigelow, Carol Brown, Bob Campbell, Mary Jo Coulehan, Justin Cowan, Bill Esterbrook, Tanya Garcia, Mike Halverson, Pennie Hamilton, Chris Hinger, Nancy Schutz, Tom Steen, Mike Stoll.

In no sense of the word was this truly a ‘Citizens Committee.’ 10 out of the 14 members were directly connected to the School District or to the County government. But perhaps they could have given some meaningful direction to the architects from Blythe Group… if they had been allowed to.

From the Blythe Group’s 2008 ‘Facilities Master Plan.’

Here’s a quote from the 2008 report (which you can download here):

At the onset of the process, the District formed a Citizens Committee to guide and make recommendations for the master planning of new and existing facilities. At the first meeting of the Citizens Committee in January 2007, building blocks for a vision statement emerged:

1. Reinforce the maximization of student achievement by doing what is best for the children.

2. Maximizing community partnerships for education.

3. Building partnerships.

Though there were no further Committee meetings, it was clear that the group’s intent was to define the District’s needs in a very broad scope in order to set goals and define a path to reach them…

As we note, the Citizens Committee met only once.  Hard to have much influence on a government plan if your committee holds only a single meeting and then disbands.

(If this story sounds familiar to the ‘Citizens Committee’ convened by the Archuleta Board of County Commissioners back in 2015 — at the beginning of the discussions about a new ‘justice center’ — and was then disbanded by the BOCC after only two meetings… well, yes, it does indeed sound familiar.)

Nevertheless, the Blythe Group seems to have done a reasonably thorough job of analyzing the District’s four school buildings in 2008, and one of their key conclusions — driven partly by the School Board, it seems — was that no new school buildings would be needed for the foreseeable future, based on declining enrollment trends. In fact, the enrollment continued dropping until it reached a low point of 1323 students in 2013.

Enrollment today in 2017 is just a bit below where it was in 1998, when 1552 students were enrolled in the District. But we are now talking about new multi-million-dollar buildings?

The Blythe Group report did not talk about new buildings. It talked about fixing problems in the existing buildings, and they calculated, in 2008, that the total repairs and upgrades needed “within five years” — in all four District schools — totaled about $7.7 million.

As mentioned, a ‘Facilities Master Plan’ is typically seen as a living document that gets updated as repairs are made, and as new problems crop up. Unfortunately, the Blythe Group’s ‘Master Plan’ was basically put on a shelf, and allowed to gather dust, because the District was dealing with a steep decline in per pupil funding resulting from a frightening drop in enrollment — as well as cuts made to the state budget during the Great Recession.  As a result, almost no money was allocated towards building ‘upgrades.’

We probably could have taken the Blythe document out and dusted it off, considering that the District’s current enrollment is about same as it was in 1998. (Back in 2008, Blythe had estimated the 2017 enrollment would be 1545, given a “Reasonable Business Cycle.” We are in fact at 1525, according to Superintendent Linda Reed.)

But governments like nothing better than spending money, so instead of recycling a ‘Facilities Master Plan’ that might still suit us all perfectly, the District Administration and the School Board decided to hire a completely different architecture firm and start the whole assessment process again, from the very beginning.

Prices seem to have gone up since the Blythe Group analyzed the conditions of the same four buildings in 2008 — despite the fact that three of the buildings have since gotten new roofs.

When Colorado-Springs-based RTA Architects were brought in two years ago to begin the process of developing a completely new ‘Facilities Master Plan,’ they used a ranking system that does not align with the Blythe Group’s 2008 ranking system. I invite anyone to try and figure out from the RTA report which repairs and upgrades need to be done within 5 years, for example. (You can download the RTA report here.)

But we do know that the cost of the upgrade and repair items in the first two Priority categories are estimated by RTA at about $20 million.

So let’s talk about “Soft Costs.”

Read Part Four…

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.