Aug 18, 2023

Mold, weeds and sagging ceilings

The Peñasco Independent School District (PISD) came under criticism recently for its proposal of a bond meant to help fund the reconstruction of their school district. The funds in question would come from an increase in property tax, but critics have argued that a significant amount of Peñasco residents are already living below the poverty line or live on a fixed income.

When the bond election was held on May 9, a mere 13 votes stopped it in its tracks, however. If it had passed, Peñasco residents would have had to cover a hike on their property tax over the next 15 years in order to fund a $3 million portion of the cost to rebuild the school’s campus.

Dorothy Lopez-Sherman, the president of the PISD board of education, recommended seniors go to the Taos County Assessor’s Office to freeze their taxes. Otherwise, the school is uncertain about how to lessen the financial impact on non-senior residents.

While this issue has raised many concerns, when asked about why they went with a bond, Lopez-Sherman noted the lack of an economic base in the small mountain community, and that the most effective pool to pull from is property tax. But looking back at the bond election in May, the board president wonders whether they did everything right.

An impoverished district

Meanwhile, Maxwell Municipal Schools in neighboring Colfax County recently underwent a bond election this past May as well for a tax-hike proposal very similar to the one proposed for Peñasco.

Both schools received an assessment from the Public School Facilities Authority, and the agency told both schools the same thing: It would be cheaper to rebuild the school than to repair the existing facilities. Maxwell’s bond passed with 78 percent of voters in support.

According to Maxwell Municipal Schools Superintendent Amy Roble, it’s all about being direct and transparent with the community. “In order to pass our bond, we made sure that we were very upfront with the community on exactly what the issues were, exactly what needed to be fixed, that a lot of our issues were truly life and safety issues that we couldn’t continue to overlook,” Roble said.

For this bond, the Maxwell school showed the community what needed fixing and compared the cost of repairs to the cost of rebuilding. Roble believes that by seeing the raw numbers of the project, the community of Maxwell was able to understand the need for reconstruction and became more willing to pay a higher property tax.

However, according to Census Reporter, a grant-funded, nonprofit project meant to make census data more accessible and digestible, 28.5 percent of Peñasco residents live below the poverty line, a stark contrast compared to Maxwell’s 5.5 percent.

Furthermore, Maxwell residents would see an increase of roughly $120 on their annual property tax payments, compared to Peñasco, where the additional taxation ranged from $88 to $220 annually, depending on the value of the property.

“I think a lot of the time we assume that the community comes through our buildings or sees what’s going on or sees what the issues are,” Roble said, “but truly when we started this process and we started to really inform our community of what the issues were, even some of our board and staff members didn’t realize the true severity of some of the issues that buildings were having.”

Roble also placed community members within the schools, so that they could see the issues with their own eyes. Peñasco is currently considering a similar approach.

Showing, not telling

On Wednesday (July 26), Taos News reporters took a tour of the Peñasco school district, taking photos and interviewing maintenance and custodial staff, the ones who have to work with the dilapidated facilities every day.

Reporters were guided by both Sandoval and Lopez-Sherman, the latter of whom was shocked at some of the infrastructural issues at the school.

“I’m convinced that we need to organize small groups of our constituents and give them a tour,” Lopez-Sherman said. “Because when you drive into our campus, it looks like a very nice campus. The buildings look nice, nice roofs, pretty colors — but when you peel back the layers, look what we found. It’s ridiculous that our kids have to go through that.”

One classroom had a ceiling that was sagging down to one side. Another building had plantlife poking through the foundation and into the interior. Sandoval noted she had plants growing into her own office. At one point, Sandoval pointed out the lack of a fire suppression system. A surreal sight, the lofty ceilings were without sprinklers or pipes, making the architecture appear to be of an inhuman design.

Ray Pino, a maintenance supervisor who has worked in the school for seven years, pointed out aging heaters, some of which were nearly 25 years old. According to Pino, these heaters usually only have 12-year lifespans, but they’ve rotted in place for a full lifespan more. Because the units are so old, replacement parts are difficult to find, so they have been harvesting parts from other units around campus.

“Yes, our property taxes are gonna go up, but what we really need to focus on is what our taxes are gonna purchase: A whole campus for your kids, a whole new open-classroom concept,” Lopez-Sherman said.

Sandoval and Lopez-Sherman both hope to see outdoor classrooms and an amphitheater in the school’s future, just a few amenities they’ve dreamed of for the new campus.

The school hopes to see the bond pass; with it, they plan on “right-sizing,” Lopez-Sherman said.

The current campus is capable of accommodating 1,700 students, while their current enrollment is less than 300. With a low enrollment, less money is being channeled through the school, but the oversized facilities still use utilities. According to an informational pamphlet handed out before the bond election, annual maintenance costs for the school are reaching $500,000.

Although the bond failed to pass in May, the district filed a resolution to put it back on the ballot for the November general election.

"The buildings look nice, nice roofs, pretty colors — but when you peel back the layers, look what we found. It’s ridiculous that our kids have to go through that.”

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An impoverished districtShowing, not tellingAll comment authors MUST use their real names. Posts thatcannot be ascribed to a real personwill not be moderated.Keep it Clean.PLEASE TURN OFF YOUR CAPS LOCK.Don't Threaten.Be Truthful.Be Nice.Be Proactive.Share with Us.