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District considers bond for mega-campus

On Tuesday morning, officials from the Archuleta School District 50 Joint met with SUN staff to announce they intend to pursue a bond issue in November that will, if passed, help pay for a consolidated campus on land adjacent to the Pagosa Springs High School.

Board director Ken Fox and district superintendent Mark DeVoti told SUN staff they were confident that local voters would pass a bond initiative, given the stakes and the potential reward — as well as the minimal cost to voters.

“Really,” DeVoti said, “this would be the cost of a couple lattes a week.”

The district’s board will decide if it will choose to pursue the bond initiative during a special meeting of the school board next Tuesday, June 28, at 5 p.m. in the district’s Maintenance and Transportation building (south of the high school at the end of south Fifth Street).

The decision to bring the bond issue before the board followed a recommendation from a subcommittee formed in January to examine the viability of a mega-campus for the district.

Although the district had long considered the concept of a mega-campus — locating the high school, middle school and elementary school buildings in a single location — the idea took off in December 2011 when the district signed a $300,000 contract on 53 acres of land adjacent to the high school.

For all intents and purposes, the district bought the 53 acres for a song. The parcel, bordering Trujillo Road on the north and west side with the high school campus on the east, had been assessed at $3.4 million in 2007 (when a Planned Unit Development had been proposed for the parcel) before being acquired by Citizens Bank in a foreclosure — over 90 percent less than its original assessed value. Listed at $400,000 by the bank after that acquisition, the district was able to obtain a further 25-percent discount on the property.

In late February, DeVoti addressed local officials, as well as representatives from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and the Governor’s Energy Office (GEO), unveiling a rough concept of what a master campus would look like.

NREL representatives were in town at that time to present on options for the area’s geothermal resources.

DeVoti tailored a portion of his February presentation to suggestions made by NREL experts regarding geothermal resources in the area. At that time, DeVoti said he was encouraged by NREL’s suggestions that the area’s geothermal resources could be much larger than previously thought and potentially available for large-scale expansion.

Speaking to the possibility that geothermal energy could heat all the buildings on the campus, DeVoti asked the audience then, “What if we could be a model, nationally?”

DeVoti suggested that with expanded geothermal resources, not only could district schools be largely run off clean energy (saving the district thousands in energy costs), but that the district could integrate curriculum focused on green energy technologies.

In fact, the conceptual plan handed out to February’s audience included a geothermal heating plant. However, DeVoti said those plans could be expanded to include geothermally-heated greenhouses and fish ponds that would be used to instruct students in various subjects including agriculture, botany, aquaculture, biology and various other areas of science.

Locating all three schools (elementary, middle and high schools) at the same site would also provide savings for the district. The current disparate locations of the schools entail that buses drop students off at one school then drive cross town to drop off other students.

“We’d be saving at least $100,000 in transportation costs,” DeVoti said at the time.

Likewise, safety issues would be mitigated due to a one-stop location for the schools. Currently, middle school students need to cross U.S. 160 in order to participate in outdoor physical education activities (the school’s playing fields located at Town Park), while some students who walk to school also have to cross the highway during morning rush hour. A single location on the south side of town would eliminate those hazards.

Four months later, and after having spoken with numerous consultants on school construction and bond issues, both Fox and DeVoti said they believe 2011 is the year to try and pass a bond issue for the construction of the master campus.

DeVoti and Fox stated that a number of funding sources would be used to pay for the campus and one of those sources is due to dry up over the next year — BEST (Building Excellent Schools Today) funding.

BEST funds are awarded by the state (through the Colorado Department of Education) to replace schools that generally cost more in maintenance and repairs than new construction would run.

Last year, a CDE assessment of the elementary and junior high schools determined that the two buildings were at the threshold for qualifying for funding.

Sale of district-owned property would offset a large chunk of the costs. Aside from prime downtown real estate (and an historic building) where the current junior high and middle schools are located, the district would also sell the elementary school property on the south side of U.S. 160.

Although the district also owns 35 acres in the Vista area (a second elementary school was once proposed for that location), it was not clear as of press time if the district would be able to sell that property, due to deed restrictions.

Despite a suggestion of BEST funding and proceeds from property sales, Fox and DeVoti conceded that plans for a master campus largely hinged on voters passing a bond proposal.

However, both Fox and DeVoti said that they believe they could position the bond initiative to voters in such a way that the proposal would pass.

“With property values down the way they are this year, I think the timing is good,” DeVoti said.

Both said that they would also appeal to the issue of economic development in the area.

“The project would provide steady construction jobs for at least three years,” DeVoti said.

“Plus,” Fox added, “prospective business owners, seeing new state-of-the-art schools might be encouraged to stay here and set up shop.”

If the school board approves the district’s desire to propose a bond initiative in November this Tuesday, its next step will be to figure out how to make the issue palatable to local voters.

jim@pagosasun.com

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