Charter school building project on track

........................................................................................................................................................................................

The Socorro County Commission held a public hearing Oct. 22 and approved an ordinance to secure funding to build new classrooms for Cottonwood Valley Charter School.

The county's ordinance authorizes a loan and intercept agreement with the New Mexico Finance Authority for just over $1.1 million.

When the commission approved first publication of the ordinance during its regular meeting Sept. 24, county Manager Delilah Walsh said the new classrooms will replace the portable classrooms being used at Cottonwood now. They will be installed next summer. She later noted Cottonwood has spent well over $1 million leasing the portable buildings over the last 12 or 13 years, which she called "a waste" of $1 million.

In addition to the county's loan through NMFA, Walsh said the Socorro Consolidated Schools District has pledged $500,000 to the project, and Cottonwood has committed $300,000 of its facility funds to the project. The county will do a lease purchase agreement with Cottonwood, which will make payments to the county for the same amount of the county's payments to NMFA.

Walsh noted schools are not allowed to borrow money, and very few vendors in the state are willing to do a lease purchase agreement with a charter school. If the school goes out of business, the county can take over the buildings, but she said that was highly unlikely. She added the agreement does not cost the county anything but it helps Cottonwood.

"This is an out-of-the-box project; we're really at the vanguard of this," county attorney Adren Nance said.

Nance said if the project is successful other entities will likely model after the county.

"It's helping everyone out but it's never been done like this before," Nance said. "So it should be interesting."

Walsh said when the county discussed the proposal with the NMFA last year, the NMFA was excited about possibly making the option available to other schools in other districts. The project wasn't started last year because the schools had a bond election, and Cottonwood was not sure at that time if it could pledge its $300,000 to the project.

During the commission's public hearing for the ordinance Oct. 22, Ephraim Ford, president of the Cottonwood governing council, said Walsh did a great job explaining Cottonwood's options to its governing council, and this was the only way the school could fund the new classrooms. He said every year Cottonwood spends money leasing several portable buildings, but now the school will own its classrooms. That will promote the long-term health of the school, as well as improve the quality of education it provides, he said.

Karin Williams, Cottonwood principal for the past seven years, said the school is very well established and stable.

She said most children who leave the school before eighth grade only do so because their families move out of town. The school has an enrollment of 170 students, kindergarten through eighth grade, with over 150 students on its waiting list. The waiting list has been long for about the past four or five years.

Williams said Cottonwood won't expand because it has an agreement with the school district to keep enrollment to no more than 170, plus the school's small site would not comfortably accommodate more students than that. There are no more than 20 students in each class.

Kim Schaffer, a teacher at Cottonwood, listed several schools where she had previously taught.

"I just have never worked with quite such an amazing staff," Schaffer said. "And believe me, I worked with some great teachers at Parkview and Torres. I just really believe in our school."

Belle Rehder, fourth- and fifth-grade math and science teacher, said Cottonwood is a "wonderful community." She looks forward to having bigger classrooms; in her current small building, she has to take students outside for many activities.

Once the meeting went back into regular session, commissioners approved the ordinance unanimously by roll call vote except for commissioners Pauline Jaramillo and Daniel Monette, who were absent.

Nance and Walsh said the next step is the loan closing, which will happen in November. Nance added the lease agreement will also have to be approved by the state Board of Finance.

In other business, the County Commission:

• Approved a 25-year agreement with the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District to lease the Escondida Lake Recreational Area.

• Tabled a sheriff's office purchase with Jim's Paint and Body, following a lengthy discussion. Some paperwork was not in order regarding repairs to a patrol unit and there were questions as to why the final cost was different than the initial bid.

• Designated polling places for the 2014 primary and general elections.

• Acknowledged budgeted versus actual finances for August and September.

• Approved the first quarterly report of fiscal year 2013-14 to submit to the state Department of Finance and Administration.

• Acknowledged the finance report and journal entries for August and September. Finance Director Roberta Smith mentioned the county emergency management department is still waiting for $160,000 to $180,000 in reimbursement due from the state Department of Homeland Security. Walsh added DHS is back to adequate staffing levels so the issue should be resolved soon.

• Approved vendor checks.

• Approved Oct. 16 payroll.