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District answers 3B questions from county, town officials

Presenting its reasons for pursuing a $49 million bond initiative that, if passed, would fund the construction of K-8 facilities adjacent to the current location of the high school, the Archuleta School District 50 Joint met with members of the Archuleta Board of County Commissioners and two members of the Pagosa Springs Town Council on Tuesday night.

The county was also represented by County Administrator Greg Schulte and County Attorney Todd Starr.

Opening the discussion, district superintendent Mark DeVoti said, “There’s so much out there that’s been misconstrued, misstated facts, we wanted to get the facts out there.”

Detailing the history of the district’s desire to build a consolidated campus, DeVoti concluded, “It was never about repairing buildings that have reached the end of their service life. It was about getting them (students) off of (U.S. Highway) 160, getting them out of downtown.”

DeVoti added that, despite tough economic times both locally and nationally, the board felt that the timing for pursuing the bond was right given low bond rates. Indeed, it was on the topic of tough economic times that DeVoti said the construction of new schools would be a benefit for the area as far as jobs creation.

“When we release the RFP (Request For Proposal) for the builder, it will stipulate at least 25 percent local labor,” DeVoti said, adding that such a stipulation was not included in the bond language due to statutory restrictions.

“I can assure you, when it’s time to issue the RFP, this board will not settle for anything less than 25 percent,” DeVoti said.

Board director Joanne Irons added that “local” would mean Archuleta County and not surrounding areas. “We will stipulate Archuleta County, we want the labor to stay local,” she said.

Commissioner Clifford Lucero asked the board how the schools would be located and if younger K-8 students would be exposed to older high school students.

DeVoti responded that the facilities would not only be separate from the high school, but that elementary children would also be separate from middle school students. However, DeVoti added that the consolidated campus would have the benefit of not just combining resources (such as a consolidated kitchen to cook for all grade levels), but that the campus would allow student tutors to easily reach classrooms and advanced students to attend classes in higher grade levels, all without having to travel across town.

DeVoti also said that students would not be dropped off at a single location, but that busses would let students off at their designated schools, adding that the current transportation situation has K-12 students riding together in the same busses.

“You’ve asked, ‘If not now, when?’ What happens if we wait another four years?” Lucero asked.

“I can’t say what bond rates will do in four years,” DeVoti replied. “In talking with Sherman and Howard and Stifel and Nicholas (consultants guiding the bond initiative and attorneys handling bond legal issues), they said these are at historical low rates.”

Council member Shari Pierce asked how the district arrived at the $49 million price tag for the project.

DeVoti explained that projected costs for the project actually came in at around $46 million, but that another $3 million was built in as a buffer.

Conveniently, $49 million is also the statutory limit set by the state on the district.

Responding to Pierce’s question about the track record of Aldolphson and Peterson (builders) and the Blythe Group (architects) as far as cost estimates, DeVoti said, “As far as we’ve seen they’ve been right on the money.”

“So you’re pretty comfortable with their numbers?” Pierce asked.

“Very comfortable,” DeVoti answered, adding that the preliminary design for the K-8 facility provided by the Blythe Group suggested a facility, “Somewhere between 163,000 and 165,000 square feet.”

“The next step is, if this passes, putting another community group together and discussing what our community’s needs are and what we, as a community, would like to see designed,” DeVoti added.

Council member Kathie Lattin asked DeVoti if potential revenues from land sales would be applied to the cost of the project.

“That’s always been the plan,” DeVoti replied, “To put that money towards construction.”

DeVoti said that, along with sales of the downtown properties (where the intermediate and junior high schools are located) and the elementary school property, the district owns 35 acres in the Vista area and that past discussions regarding the location of a Big Box retailer in Pagosa Springs suggested that the district’s land would be adjacent to that site.

“If a Big Box decides to locate there, it could potentially make that land worth a lot more,” DeVoti said.

“Do you know what the total sale price might be for those properties?” Lattin asked.

“There’s no way to tell,” DeVoti replied, adding that the middle school would most likely be sold and converted to office space (due to the buildings historical designation), but it would be up to developers to decide what to do with the elementary and junior high schools and that the $49 million included the cost of mothballing those two buildings.

Regarding the proposed location of the consolidated campus, Pierce spoke to the condition of the roads (specifically, Eighth Street), asking how the district intended to address the need to install sidewalks and improve roads.

“Eighth Street needs a lot of work,” Pierce said.

DeVoti responded that the district has been working with the Colorado Department of Transportation regarding bus routes and access to the campus.

“The more we put this together, the better shot we have at pursuing grants to pay for roads and increased safety,” DeVoti said.

DeVoti pointed out that a consolidated campus would ultimately save the district in transportation costs — more than $100,000 a year, he said — as well as freeing up as much as 45 minutes a day for students who are currently being shuttled around town to the various buildings.

“Another criticism I’ve heard is the maintenance,” Pierce said. “What would your commitment be to maintaining the new facilities?”

“There’s been a lot of misinformation regarding that,” DeVoti replied. “The ‘F’ for maintenance in the 2008 CDE (Colorado Department of Education) report was due to combining the maintenance and transportation director into a single position. We could get that grade changed at any time, we could have it changed by next week. The district is actually in compliance with CDE standards as far as employing the required number of maintenance personnel needed per square foot.”

Although representatives from the county and town appeared receptive to the district’s plans and DeVoti’s responses to questions, it was commissioner Michael Whiting who summed up the task facing the district if it hopes to convince voters to pass the bond.

“In my informal polling at the grocery store, at the brewery, on the whole it’s a crap shoot,” Whiting said. “There’s a lot of questions that are out there and I think you could do more, whether you’re opposed or you support, you could do a better job at clarifying.”

“It’s not over,” Whiting concluded, “it could go one way or the other.”

jim@pagosasun.com

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