The ballots have been mailed and the tallying has begun; this November, the voters of Manzanola School District will determine whether or not to accept the award of a $21.4 million BEST Grant (from the Colorado Department of Education) by providing a 9 percent local contribution, about $1.9 million.

The ballots have been mailed and the tallying has begun; this November, the voters of Manzanola School District will determine whether or not to accept the award of a $21.4 million BEST Grant (from the Colorado Department of Education) by providing a 9 percent local contribution, about $1.9 million. If accepted, the project will finance the construction of a single new unified school building, “built on 20 acres of land directly across from County Road 11.5 from the existing junior/senior high school building.” This facility will replace six of the seven separate buildings currently in use by the district.

Drivers in the town of Manzanola will quickly notice the dozens of “Vote Yes on 3C!” yard signs. Eastbound traffic on Highway 50 will see a single sign advocating a for a “common sense no vote” on the issue. While this sort of public representation of the opposed positions is clearly far from equal, letters in the Rocky Ford Gazette have expressed both supportive and contrary positions. Even the plentiful supply of supportive signs, of course, testify to the supporters’ awareness that the ballot issue is not certain. The proposal has triggered discussion of where Manzanola as a community is headed, and of what goals it should embrace. This debate is in itself a good thing, according to School Superintendent Tom Wilke. “It has people talking,” he said. Regardless of the outcome of this particular vote, that kind of community attention paid to the school, and the school’s role as a center for the community to come together, are clear positives in Wilke’s view.

If the new school is built, that role will be augmented by several practical elements. A system of pass cards with the door security features inherent to the planned building will add safety for students and staff, but will actually improve ease of visitation as well. “Our plan is to have more public access, not just the library.”

The principle of equal representation (or “one person, one vote”) means that only residents of the district may vote in the election, since owners of property there who themselves reside elsewhere are able to vote in those other local elections. However, in Wilke’s opinion, “anyone with a stake in the district” should be able to take advantage of the public facilities it will offer, including landowners and all students’ families, for example. Access to workout facilities is one of the services planned for the public, as is the use of some kind of community meeting room (a request regularly made of the schools at present) and that of the included new location for Manzanola’s public library.

Community access is a district mission regardless of the vote on 3C. Wilke notes that the district is presently applying for a grant to fund a reverse osmosis water filtration system, to include free water for community members. The project will also provide another practical lab for the ag program students, one of the pre-professional curriculum areas the school offers. Another application in progress seeks support for a CNA program.

The plan to replace the current school buildings isn’t a matter of maintenance. The existing facilities have been well cared for, and (in the case of the high school) even supported with grant money as a historic structure. If the project goes forward, the District intends to cease use of and offer for sale all but the gymnasium, with demolition as a final resort. “We’re going to keep the gym over here… it has historical value to it, with roots dug in deep,” and is well positioned by the athletic fields. Maintenance issues can be, and have been, addressed by ongoing expenditure (around $100,000 annually, with $14,000 last year on the heating system alone).

From the district perspective, the problems are mostly those of inherent limitations in what can be done with the buildings that exist, either because of size or as a result of age. The elementary school facility offers food service for the whole system; neither space nor staffing allows for relocating or replicating that at the high school. The elementary building is the younger of the two main campus facilities, and is still old enough that they don’t play games with airborne balls inside because impact with the ceiling will dislodge asbestos. Potentially dangerous electrical cable is too close to ground level and to roofs susceptible to trespass on both main buildings. This last was illustrated sharply “just a few months ago” when it was discovered that “a guy with a mattress, food, and blankets” had been camping for some time, unnoticed, on the elementary school’s roof.

The junior/senior high school is in itself an antique, at 92 years old. It is an attractive building, solidly built, and which has been well kept up over its tenure. It is also subject to a long list of integral, insolvable problems. It has a modern fire alarm system, contrary to rumor, but cannot retrofit the fire suppression sprinkler system that would be a standard safety feature on a more recent school, and similarly, cannot remove the hazardous asbestos that is no longer used in such construction. It lacks an elevator; when a student is mobility-restricted, whole classes have to relocate to rotate out of a single room downstairs. Even on the main floor, some ADA accommodations are non-standard; likewise, there are not ready solutions for temporarily injured staff or students facing mobility limitations. An even more basic restriction comes from the limited plumbing—girls have a restroom downstairs, and boys have one upstairs (where all the classrooms are normally located).

“We aren’t building to increase enrollment,” Wilke says. “We’re building it to better educate the students we have now.” Net enrollment is up in 2017, with 140 students compared to 128 (including 19 graduating) in 2016, but no particular surge is anticipated. Equally, however, the district is under no expectation of disappearing in either the near or distant future. Annual financing costs on the local contribution portion of the project, even allowing for interest, will be less than the annual maintenance normally budgeted for the half a dozen facilities intended for replacement. The state of Colorado performed the inspections and selected Manzanola for eligibility; “I believe we were third in line,” said Wilke, across all rural districts, based on evaluated need.

Regardless of the election, the District responsibilities to its student body will continue. “The idea that this town is shriveling up and will disappear — there’s no truth to that; it’s not going to happen” said Wilke. In practice, the election is not between an option with no cost and an option with new costs, but between two alternative spending plans — maintaining the seven building system as it is, with its inherent drawbacks and expenses, or financing the unified building. Every voter in the Manzanola School District is encouraged to return the official ballot (s)he received in the mail in order to make this community decision.