EDITORIAL: School District Looking at Multiple Tax Increases, Part Three

Read Part One

At their Tuesday, January 16 regular meeting, The Archuleta School District (ASD) Board of Education did not make a decision about placing a $50 million tax increase before the voters next November to pay for new school facilities and renovations to existing school facilities. The decision on actual ballot language is typically made during the summer. The more timely decision is about whether ASD will make an application for the Colorado Department of Education’s BEST program on February 23, seeking to have up to 39 percent of certain facilities projects funded by state grants. That decision was also postponed on Tuesday night, pending a final report for the volunteers who have been participating on the ASD Planning Assistance Team (PAT).

That PAT recommendation might be forthcoming on Monday evening, January 22. Based on the PAT discussions I heard last Monday evening, I’m willing to predict that the volunteer group will recommend a $50 million project to the School Board.

And based on the fact that, according to Superintendent Linda Reed, the 2018 BEST grant cycle might be the last chance to fund “large” projects, I’m willing to predict that the School Board will agree to submit a BEST grant application in February and begin the process of placing a property tax increase before the voters in November… if they win a BEST grant for 2018.

The long range plans discussed by the PAT on Monday night involve the sale, or repurposing of — or possibly, the demolition of — two older ASD facilities: the Pagosa Springs Elementary School, and the “5-6” building at the Pagosa Springs Middle School.

Pagosa Springs Elementary School, spring 2016.

The school district has been in discussions with George K. Baum Investment Bankers, the folks who might end up selling the actual bonds on a $50 million facilities project. George K. Baum, as I understand it, offers a range of complimentary (free) services to government agencies — to help a school district or municipality or other entity “sell” the proposal to the voters, if the proposed bond measure looks likely to pass. The company was involved, for example, back in 2012, when the Town proposed a one-percent sales tax increase to fund a new downtown recreation center. That bond measure failed to win voter approval.

We all understand that the Archuleta Board of County Commissioners are also planning to place a tax increase measure on next November’s ballot, to fund some type of County facilities. Those facilities would include a jail, to replace the existing County Detention Center that was abandoned in 2015. We also hear that the Pagosa Fire Protection District is planning to ask for a property tax increase during their spring, 2018, election cycle. We also know that the Town of Pagosa Springs has been discussing a $9 million “Town Shop” facility, and the possibility of funding that project with a tax increase.

So some of us, sitting in the audience at the Tuesday evening School Board meeting, may have been slightly amazed by the following discussion:

Superintendent Linda Reed:

“We had George K. Baum come in and speak to the Board, and we talked to them about facilities, and also the need to compensate our educators in a competitive manner…. So I thought it was time [tonight] for the Board to begin discussing the timeline I provided you, from George K. Baum. As far as a facilities bond is concerned, it’s the same timeline we’d operate under as far as a Mill Levy Override is concerned. So I just wanted to introduce that topic.”

We did not have a copy of the “timeline” that Ms. Reed was referencing, but we were given to understand that — according to the recommendations from George K. Baum — the school district is being told to begin marketing both a $50 million facilities bond measure (property tax increase) and a Mill Levy Override (property tax increase) at the same November 2018 election.

Board member Bruce Dryburgh:

“I’ve said for years that the most important thing we can do, that costs money, is to pay our staff — and our staff is more than just teachers. It’s the aides, and the people who drive the buses. I think we need to do whatever we need to do, to bring them up to a competitive salary vs. the other school districts in our region, in Southwest Colorado.

“If we go ahead and just build fancy buildings, I think we’ve left a very important issue on the table. I think we need to do both. I hate to ask for that kind of taxpayer money at one [election] but that’s my vote. We’ve got to do both.”

Board member Brooks Lindner:

“I concur. And I think it’s worth mentioning that we are the only school district in our [region] that doesn’t have a Mill Levy Override.”

Superintendent Reed:

“There’s one other district that doesn’t. Cortez. And they tried this past fall and failed. So, there’s two of us.”

Mr. Lindner:

“So, not only for the competition factor, but also for the dignity factor, for our staff, to show them that we value the work that they’re doing, and that we’re going to back it up. I’m fully in support of doing whatever we can to get our teachers more pay.”

Board member Jason Peterson noted that the Board has not yet seen a proposal showing the amount of additional property taxes that would be needed to increase staff salaries across the board, to some (as yet undefined) level. He said he would like to see the administration develop those numbers.

Board member Dryburgh asked if ASD was “slightly below average” for the Southwest Region, and Finance Director Mike Hodgson responded:

“Beginning salary, we’re just slightly below Bayfield. I think they are Number Two in the region. Durango blows everybody away. But then we ‘top out’ (for the experienced teachers) fairly low compared to some of the others, so, overall, we’re probably pretty much in the middle.”

Ms. Reed:

“At the top of the scale, we’re not the least bit competitive.”

Board President Greg Schick:

“I keep hearing reports of the teacher shortage, not only in Colorado but nationwide. And I’ve asked the rhetorical question, ‘What happens when there’s not enough teachers?’ That could be a scary thing.

“I’m certainly in favor of a Mill Levy Override. So let’s keep the ball rolling.”

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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.