Read Part One
But suddenly it happened, hmm, I lost every dime...
But I'm richer by far, with a satisfied mind.
— Satisfied Mind, by Bob Dylan
A photo from 2009. Dwight Jones, Colorado's Commissioner of Education, plays leap frog with students at Longfellow Elementary School in Salida.
A year ago, my partner Cynda Green and I were deep in the mire of a contentious election campaign. I was running for a seat on the Archuleta School Board... and writing articles almost daily, about the most ill-conceived tax increase proposal I'd ever come across: a "mega-campus" scheme promoted by Archuleta School District superintendent Mark DeVoti and a group of school construction companies from Denver and Grand Junction. The bond measure would have rung up a new $98 million debt for Archuleta County property owners, to pay the contractors to tear down three downtown schools and replace them with ... something? That "something" was only vaguely defined... but whatever it was, it would be built on a sloping, rocky hillside near the High School.
Our friend, Glenn Walsh, had edited together a special edition of the defunct Pagosa Post magazine, expressly to inform people about the negative aspects of Mr. DeVoti's proposal. Glenn and I were making public presentations, urging people to "VOTE NO on 3B". Cynda was researching and writing articles, and letters to the editor.
A lot of bad feelings were being generated. The School District felt attacked by the numerous critics of Mr. DeVoti's proposal. The public, meanwhile, felt dismissed and ignored by the School District; we sensed that Mr. DeVoti was trying to sell us a bill of non-transparent goods.
In the end, when the ballots were counted, the "mega-campus" had been rejected by a 3-to1 margin... the largest margin of defeat for any Colorado school bond measure in at least the past decade. It took the School District several months to finally find their feet and approve the repairs to the Elementary School roof — a roof that has been suffering from leaks for at least the past eight years.
So let's talk about jobs, shall we?
Everyone is talking about jobs. "America needs jobs," the Presidential candidates keep telling us. "Archuleta County needs jobs," the County Commission candidates assure us.
Jobs, jobs, jobs.
It's actually a funny-sounding word, when you say it repeatedly. Rhymes with "blobs" and "mobs" and "slobs."
Superintendent DeVoti's "mega-campus" project was originally proposed as a "jobs" program, back in June of 2011. At the School Board meeting where the mega-campus measure was approved for the November 2011 ballot, School Board member Greg Schick told us:
"As an eternal optimist I think the economy of Pagosa Springs is going to get better. With this project, we’ve got two years where we can put a lot of people to work in this community. Hopefully in two years statewide and nationally everything is better... A very important thing for me, and a very important thing for the community, is that we do keep 70 percent of the jobs and money in the community. That we do make a strong effort that construction and that money do stay in the community."
By the time the "mega-campus" ballot language was finalized in August, however, the percentage of expected local participation had dropped from "70 percent" to "7 percent." And soon thereafter, the voters rejected the entire plan. Superintendent Mark DeVoti blamed the resounding loss — in at least one public speech — partly on the "lies" published by the local media.
A few weeks ago, I was attending a City Council meeting in Salida, Colorado, and I had an eerie experience. I was seated in the front row of the audience; Cynda was seated next to me. We were waiting to hear the Council make a decision on a $30,000 public art project, for which I was one of the three finalists. (I was not chosen. But that's another story.)
As we sat listening, a couple of gentlemen stepped up to the podium to ask the City Council to endorse Ballot Measure 3A — a proposal from the Salida School District to put the taxpayers $14.9 million in debt to tear down a 50-year old elementary school and replace it with a brand new school on the same site.
I thought for a moment that I was back in Pagosa Springs, listening to Mark DeVoti pitching the mega-campus.
The first speaker was Dan Zettler with "Friends of Salida Schools."
"We are asking you to approve this [Council] resolution in support of a new elementary school. Jeff Chamberlain, the district rep, is also here, and he will address some matters once his PowerPoint is up.
"To put it simply, Longfellow Elementary is old. Its life span was projected at 50 years... it was built in 1956... so that would have expired in 2006. And it's basically at the point where the cost of repairs and renovation far exceed... well, no, they don't far exceed... but they are about the same amount that the citizens of Salida would pay [for a new school] under the BEST grant."
What a strange world we live in nowadays, here in America. Even our brick buildings are scheduled to become obsolete after 50 years.
I lived about a third of my life in a house built in 1920. I lived another third of my life in a house built in 1900. I now live in a duplex (in Salida) built in 1904. Did the builders of these homes ever say to themselves, "Well, this building will have a 50-year life span. So I guess we will need to tear it down in 1954, and build something new. Too bad..."?
Of course not; what an utterly crazy idea. I mean, can't we all agree... that's a crazy idea?
But Mr. Zettler could stand up last month in front of the Salida City Council — a group of seven seemingly intelligent people — and propose that a brick school building built in 1956 was "projected to have a life span of 50 years" and that life span expired, as scheduled, in 2006? So the building needs to be torn down, of course? And Salida property owners need to fork out $15 million for the privilege?
Actually, Mr. Zettler never mentioned the number $15 million. The number he mentioned was the $9.5 million to be contributed by "the citizens of Salida." He didn't mention the amount the bonds would actually cost the taxpayers once the interest payments were included: a total of $14.9 million.
This past summer, the Salida School District completed construction of a new high school, funded by taxpayer debt. I spent a few moments searching the Internet to try and discover the total repayment amount for the new high school bond, and was unsuccessful finding that number. I found only the amount of the loan principal: $17.9 million. I'm guessing the total debt is closer to $25 million.
This November, Salida voters — parents, parents-to-be, and empty-nesters — will be given the chance to destroy the 50-year old brick complex now known as Longfellow Elementary School and replace it with... something? Something that will be new and better? Something that will attract young families to Salida?
Something that will generate jobs, jobs, jobs... for the next 50 years, perhaps?
Read Part Seven...