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Tuesday meeting to focus on bond proposal

After hearing a recommendation from the School Facilities Advisory Committee (SFAC), a draft of proposed ballot language and comments from various consultants on Tuesday night, the board of directors for the Archuleta School District 50 Joint scheduled a special meeting for next Tuesday, Aug. 30, at 5 p.m. in the middle school library to solicit final input from area residents on whether or not the district should pursue a bond initiative for funding a consolidated campus on the south side of Pagosa Springs.

At next Tuesday’s meeting, opponents and supporters of the proposed measure will be given one chance to speak, limited to two minutes, prior to the board voting whether or not it will ultimately take a bond issue to the voters. If it agrees to pursue that bond, the board will also vote to accept or reject ballot language for the initiative.

This past Tuesday, board president Linda Lattin began the work session by addressing attendees and participants as to the nature of the work session, stating that comments and questions would be restricted to the board, SFAC members and consultants. As such, comments and questions from the audience were prohibited during the meeting.

Proceedings began with SFAC chair Ken Vickerstaff reading from the committee’s official recommendation. In that statement, Vickerstaff read, “(T)he School Facilities Advisory Committee (SFAC) with the assistance of three consultants brought in on a pro bono basis, determined the District’s elementary, intermediate and junior high school facilities are not adequate learning environments for the District’s students. By referencing facility reports from the Colorado Department of Education (CDE) and updating the District’s master plan, SFAC found the facilities are reaching the end of their useful life, educational standards are not being met and facility conditions create immediate concern for the learning environment as well as student safety.

“CDE conducted a statewide facility assessment of 1,687 facilities in 2009: the elementary school ranks 81st from the bottom (80 schools are worse; 1,606 are better); the intermediate school ranks 138th from the bottom (137 schools are worse; 1,549 are better); the junior high school ranks 208th from the bottom (207 schools are worse; 1,479 are better). Conversely, the high school ranks 1,105th from the bottom (1,104 schools are worse; 582 are better).”

Attempting to allay concerns about the timing of the bond initiative, the report Vickerstaff read stated, “SFAC recognizes the challenges presented by current economic conditions, but emphasizes the opportunity to address these needs while interest rates remain at historical lows and construction costs are competitive amid tougher competition. SFAC also recognizes that a construction project of this kind being proposed will provide a much-needed boost to the local workforce and economy.”

After speaking to the scope of the proposed $49 million project (and rough details of what that project would include), the report also read, “Included in our recommendation, SFAC requests the District, upon successful voter approval, institute a requirement in the Request for Proposal process for the final design/construction team that at least 25% of the labor for the project be local.”

The report concluded, “It’s important to note the proposed $49 million bond authorization is a maximum number with the expectation that this amount be reduced by the pursuit of applicable grant opportunities; a public, community-driven, oversight process to determine the needs and desires of the students, parents and residents; as well as the possible sale of the District’s existing properties. Upon voter approval, SFAC recommends the community oversight process be guided by a District-appointed Design Advisory Group composed of faculty, students, parents, business and community members.”

Following Vickerstaff’s presentation, directors Greg Schick and Joanne Irons asked about building specifics and timelines for the project. Vickerstaff responded that it would be premature to provide those kinds of answers.

“If the community votes for a bond then you move through the design process,” he said.

Expressing regret that she had not been able to participate in the SFAC process during the summer, Irons talked about her vacation and how she and her family had often travelled through depressed communities. Upon returning to Pagosa Springs and seeing a number of tourists and “bustling streets,” Irons added, “I felt a little bit of life — not like a lot of the communities that were sad and boarded up.”

Describing her vision of the possibilities of a consolidated campus, Irons also expressed her frustration with the negativity that she felt had marred the conversation regarding the issue. Emotionally appealing for a more civil dialog, Irons said, “All we have is each other.

“I have no complaints about the education in Archuleta County, but I know we could do better.”

Irons finished with an offer to host forums at the Pagosa Springs Youth Center (where she is executive director) to facilitate the opportunity to air all points of view.

With the board’s discussion on SFAC recommendations essentially winding down, the topic moved to proposed ballot language, with Troy Bernberg, vice-president of public finance at Stifel Nicolaus & Co. Inc. (the firm that would issue bonds funding construction) fielding those questions.

Stating that Denver law firm Sherman and Howard, LLC had been retained to compose the ballot language, Bernberg presented two options for the board to consider prior to next Tuesday’s meeting.

Iron’s asked if that language would include a stipulation of providing matching funds to BEST (Building Excellent Schools Today), referring to a $50 million bond initiative for new and improved schools facing voters in the Ignacio area. The Ignacio bond initiative cites BEST money as a potential offset for construction costs.

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.

Some differences exist between the Archuleta County district and Ignacio district, however. With the Ignacio district’s mill levy the third lowest in the state, the proposed mill-levy increase would only raise property taxes by about $5 a month per $100,000 of a home’s assessed value.

Archuleta County ranks just below the state average — 29th lowest out of 64 counties in Colorado (according to the Department of Local Affairs). Likewise, the bond proposal for the Archuleta County school district would raise residential property taxes almost $7 a month per $100,000 of a home’s assessed value.

Bernberg replied that a stipulation for BEST funding could be added into a bond language resolution for the board’s consideration next Tuesday.

Schick then asked Bernberg about a U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) investigation of Stifel and Nicolaus launched on Aug. 10, regarding $200 million in investments by several Wisconsin school districts made in 2006, specifically (according to the SEC), “(D)efrauding five Wisconsin school districts by selling them unsuitably risky and complex investments funded largely with borrowed money.”

Bernberg responded, “I’m not going to deviate from the prepared statement (provided to board members),” but added that no one in Stifel and Nicolaus Colorado offices or in the Public Finance division had been involved.

“We don’t believe this impacts our reputation on the local level,” Bernberg continued. “This has been common knowledge for several years and, despite that, we are among the top three underwriters of municipal bonds.”

Bernberg added that the individual who had manufactured the Wisconsin deal had been dismissed by the company (and is also part of the SEC complaint), that Stifel and Nicolaus would be aggressively fighting the charges, that the company believed that the Royal Bank of Canada (which arranged the investments) shared culpability and that the investments (Collateralized Debt Obligations) did not involve the sale of municipal bonds.

“The incident in Wisconsin had nothing to do with bonds?,” Schick asked.

Bernberg replied, “No bonds were issued.”

Seemingly satisfied with Bernberg’s answers (and the Stifel and Nicolaus statement), the board moved on to the topic of next Tuesday’s meeting. Irons asked if the meeting would include an opportunity for public input.

After a brief discussion between Lattin and District Superintendent Mark DeVoti, Lattin stated that a period of public comment would be scheduled. At first allowing an hour for a public forum, Lattin conceded that as much as 90 minutes could be allotted. Board consensus determined that public comment would be limited to two minutes, with no second chances to address the board until all participants had been given a chance to speak.

“There’s a lot of significant, well-placed objections,” Schick said. “I want those people to be heard. I think that’s the point of the process.”

That process has one last chance for public input prior to the submission of ballot language to the Archuleta County Clerk of Courts for the Sept. 2 deadline.

Residents who want to be heard should attend the board’s meeting at the Middle School library at 5 p.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 30. Those residents would be well-advised to prepare questions or comments ahead of time if they want to squeeze those words into the two-minute limit.

jim@pagosasun.com

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