11/29/07

     The Española School Board's longest serving member has made the unpopular suggestion that the school district should consolidate two of its elementary schools. This revelation comes just as the Board is preparing to put before voters the second multi-million dollar school bond in the last year.

     Board member Joe Romero said Nov. 20 that he believes it is time to consider consolidating Alcalde Elementary and Velarde Elementary schools.

    The schools have a combined enrollment of 315 students and are located within 10 miles of each other on State Road 68. The state Public School Facilities Authority has pushed for the schools to be consolidated.

    "The more I think about it, it makes sense there should be only one school," Romero said. "Why Velarde is so far against it is beyond me."

    Velarde Elementary parents have long opposed the joining of these schools and until Romero's statement, the Board and District administration had unanimously resisted the state's push to consolidate the schools.

    These same parents could be a deciding factor in whether the next bond measure passes.

    The Board plans to present a $19 million bond to voters in March, less than a year after a $21 million bond was rejected. The last bond was defeated May 22 by a margin of only 34 votes.

    During the run up to the May bond vote, the Board had made a number of promises, two of which were to build a new Alcalde Elementary School and to construct additional classrooms at neighboring Velarde Elementary.    

    The Alcalde project has stalled for years. The District had promised to build a new Alcalde school in 2002 when voters successfully passed a $15 million bond. But the construction project languished in the intervening years as the District has attempted to secure a new site for the facility, and five years later some of the only money spent on the new school has been about $100,000 to pay for architectural plans that will never be used.

    The District has still not secured land for the new facility more than a year after Congress transferred 171 acres of federal land to Rio Arriba County for that specific purpose.

    The state awarded the District $4,130,340 in 2005 for the new school with the condition that the facility could handle 400 students, more than double Alcalde's enrollment. The larger building would "address Velarde (Elementary's) needs" the award stated.

    The recalcitrant Velarde community has fervently opposed consolidation, a view point the Board and Superintendent David Cockerham have unanimously supported. If the District chooses not to adhere to the award description as outlined by the state, it will have to apply for a new award with the understanding that Velarde will not be consolidated.

    Meanwhile the District has watched the cost of the Alcalde project more than double to what is now estimated to be a $14 to $16 million project.

    Romero, of Sombrillo, was careful to identify himself as an outsider among the Board. He is the only member not to have joined the five-member governing body this year. He was appointed in 2006 after former member Connie Valdez died.

    Board President Andrew Chavez, whose district includes Alcalde and Velarde Elementary schools, was quick to defend the continued separation of the two schools when Romero brought up the topic at the Board's Nov. 20 meeting at Española middle school.

    "That's the way it's been forever," Chavez said and ended the discussion.

    An outsider or not, Romero was correct in his assessment of Velarde's collective conscience.

    "By taking away our school you're taking away our heart — our life," Velarde parent Chris Loibl said.        

    Loibl is the vice president of Velarde Elementary's parent advisory committee who attended a Nov. 7 Board meeting to press the District to complete renovations on a new portable classroom for one of the school's fourth-grade classes. As of last week the class was being taught in a gym storage space. Loibl said the fourth-graders need to move out of the storage space so special education students can begin using it.

    At that earlier meeting Romero had reminded Loibl and other Velarde parents in attendance that the District needs to pass a bond to construct new school buildings, like classrooms at Velarde. But Romero's recent comments might ostracize the very community the District will need to appeal to if it wants the measure to pass.

    "If the issue comes up that they will have to consolidate the school, then (Velarde) will vote against it," Rubina Loibl, Loibl's wife, said.

    The Velarde community had supported the May 22 bond by a factor of three to one. More than twice as many Alcalde residents had turned out to vote, but the margin of support was much closer with 42 supporting the bond and 34 voting against it.

      Tax Increase   

    State statute prohibits a school district from submitting a bond election to voters within two years of a failed election unless the question is changed significantly.

    Duane Brown, an attorney for the investment banking firm, George K. Baum and Company, called the last question submitted by the Board the "kitchen sink question," meaning the verbiage would have allowed the District to use the money for almost any construction project.

    "What we really need to do is be specific about what projects we're going to fund," Brown said to the Board.

    Along with the Alcalde project, the proposed bond could fund an auxiliary gym at Española Valley High School, new heating, air-conditioning and ventilation units at some of the elementary schools, and repayment of a loan the state granted the District for wastewater treatment facilities at Abiquiú, Hernandez and Velarde Elementary Schools.

    Whatever question the Board finally settles on will have to be approved by the state Attorney General. Brown said in order to properly advertise the bond the Board needs to approve the measure at least 75 days before the date of the election.

    Brown initially suggested a March 4 bond election until Board member Floyd Archuleta informed him that was the date of the Española municipal elections. Archuleta is a former city councilor who lost a mayoral bid  in 2006.

    After much debate the Board settled on a possible March 25 election, though it has yet to officially approve the date. The Board floated the idea of having an election as early as February, and has yet to entirely rule out the idea, though Brown warned the Board it would have to meet some rapidly approaching deadlines to do so.

    "We've served enough time now to know what we're up against and to determine the needs in the District," Chavez said.

    According to figures prepared by George K. Baum and Company, a $19 million bond would impose a $45 annual tax increase on a property with an appraisal value of $90,000, and a $75 annual tax increase on a property valued at $150,000.

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