School Board, Commission Tackle Affordable Housing

Joint meeting 2

School Board, Commission Tackle Affordable Housing

By Tarin Nix

The Española School Board and Rio Arriba County Commissioners met Monday night for a special joint work session to discuss the Moves 2 Win program, potential land acquisitions and development opportunities, school resource officers, buses and a new program ‘Cooking with Kids.’

Rio Arriba County deputy manager David Trujillo began the evening with a presentation on the Moves 2 Win program that was implemented over the last few months. Trujillo reported that with nearly 300 students signing up to participate and almost 200 in attendance each day, the program was a success in its first year. Even 93 percent of the youth participants agreed that the program exceeded expectations.  Program leaders were on hand to discuss the great work of John Ramon Vigil and the use of free community resources and in-kind support from the local and surrounding communities to come up with cost effective ways to entertain teenagers. They noted, the only real cost ensued was from swimming fees from the City of Española. All members urged staff to work with the City to cut that cost for the following year.

Some members were concerned about why enrollment numbers were not as high as the original goal of 500 students.  Trujillo explained that there were multiple organizations offering programs with longer hours of operation and they County had a limited timeframe to reach out to parents and grandparents.  School Board Vice President Lucas Fresquez expressed a desire to do more to increase the 5 percent participation amongst youth raised by their grandparents.  Fresquez noted, “60 percent of our students are raised by their grandparents, so we’re not reaching that big audience and it is something we need to look at.”

Commission Chairman Barney Trujillo commended the staff on a job well done and encouraged them to extend the hours next summer if they wanted to do this program again but was quick to point out that unlike other programs, “our program is run by certified teachers, people who are trained to deal with children in the classroom setting.” Trujillo ended the discussion noting, “this is what good government does, collaborate well and at the end of the day, our kids are taken care of.”

The most contentious point of the evening, unless you count School Board President Pablo Lujan being called the old man on the Board (he’s 35), centered around the discussion about what to do with the East Middle School property owned by the County. Based on the wishes of the Española School Board to explore options to develop a mixed-use space to encourage growth and develop housing to entice new teachers and young families, various Rio Arriba County agencies began discussions about the possibility of working with the School Board to create a plan that would address the East Middle School property and some gaps in mental health services, housing and economic development.

Before the discussion even began, Commissioner Alex Naranjo was already concerned about the pace at which this project was moving, expressing his reservation with the entire concept. Naranjo was quick to point out that during his 18 years on the School Board, they spent millions of dollars on schools that have now been ‘red tagged’ and are no longer in use. Lujan explained that in the case of Sombrillo Elementary School, the State had ‘red tagged’ the property and deemed it no longer usable. However in the matter of the development of affordable housing and how the School Board got involved with this discussion, Lujan explained that initially the proposed GRT tax was to develop, “affordable housing, a community center and possible sport complex” but after Governor Martinez vetoed the tax the two entities were required to look outside of the box in terms of development to increase enrollment and economic security in the region.

Naranjo was quick to question shortcomings in the housing market for college students and reasserted that he “won’t touch it with a 10 foot pole until we get the input from the community.” Lujan addressed his concerns and assured him this was just a preliminary discussion and no official actions would be taken during the meeting.

After the awkward and sometimes accusatory conversation before the presentation began, Health and Human Services Director Lauren Reichelt, explained the four-year history of the project and why the need was so great for the County and the positive impacts it would have as a whole.  Reichelt noted that with a two-year waitlist for Section 8 housing and 80 percent of failed mental health referrals in Rio Arriba County coming from our homeless and transient residents, something must be done to address the shortcomings in the housing market. “We need to address the issue of homelessness,” said Reichelt. With Rio Arriba County growing richer, older, and more White and the City becoming increasingly poorer, younger and Hispanic; homelessness and affordable housing have become some of the most pressing issues.  However as Reichelt points out, the community hasn’t always supported actions to create a shelter or housing development in their neighborhoods.

Reichelt was excited to present a proposed plan to utilize East Middle School for a state of the art multiincome rental facility that would be done as a tax credit project.  The advantage as Reichelt notes is that, “90 percent of the funds come from outside of the community. So every $1 we put in we get $9 and on a $15 million project that means we don’t have to raise it ourselves and the part we do is mostly in donated land.” Reichelt mentioned the facility would be modeled after Stage Coach in Santa Fe and similar developments. The facilities would be solar, all green and have no blind corners. Even more pressing is that this development would specifically create housing for grandparents who are raising grandchildren and have the opportunity for on-site case management for residents in need.  Reichelt expressed, “this is property is attractive for a tax credit project because you have to be in walking distance to schools, services and public transportation” and this property has access to everything needed to qualify.  Living 10 minutes from the propose site, Reichelt mentioned, “there is no way I would be proposing something that I thought would make my neighborhood a worse place.” She went on to note, “We are talking about $15 million in additional revenue to be shared by the City and the County. This project could really help reinvigorate the west side.”

Fresquez jumped into the conversation to reiterate that the goal of the School Board was to develop a mixed-use space that included a sports complex and townhomes to attract new teachers. Fresquez noted if we, “attract better more stable educators, we will attract more students and offer a even better educational opportunity. While apartments might be useful to the college, we have to prioritize our schools and families first.”

Naranjo chimed in, “I don’t want the west side of Española to become a slum area. Who would maintain it and control it? I have a huge investment with properties on the west side.”

Planning and Zoning Director Lucia Sanchez countered with, “We are facing a housing crisis. Our residents want housing, they need housing. It is a priority. But look at where our low-income housing is. It has always been a bad word. Not in my backyard, they say, but those are our people, our family. Those are the people that need a hand up not a hand out and it is a perfect way to provide services.”

After an intense exchange about what the implications were for moving forward with the government mandated requirement to have an ordinance to proceed with discussions, Trujillo instructed the staff to continue to with preliminary talks about this type of development in Española.

Rio Arriba County Sherriff James Lujan was on hand to discuss the second year of the school resource officer program in the middle school and high school. Members thanked Sherriff Lujan and his staff for going above and beyond and for personally being at the high school.  School Board President Lujan mentioned that he was, “very thankful for starting the second year and that officers were very responsive to both schools.” Lujan commended the staff and the County for, “allowing the District to continue this service.”  Sherriff Lujan noted, “They are our future, so whatever we can do to help them survive junior high and high school, we will continue to do.” It was announced that an additional school resource officer would be added this year.

In their final acts, the members listened to a request from Española Public Schools Transportation Director Sennie Quintana to allow the District to enter into an agreement with Rio Arriba County to provide service to all fleet vehicles the School District owns and operates and updates to the ‘Cooking with Kids’ program coming to the District.