'Close our school ... and you dissolve our community'

Fate of tiny, high-performing Costilla institution to be decided Aug. 6

By Doug Cantwell
dcantwell@taosnews.com
Posted 8/1/19

Costilla parents and other concerned citizens voiced their fears, frustrations and outrage Monday evening (July 29) to the Questa Independent School District …

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'Close our school ... and you dissolve our community'

Fate of tiny, high-performing Costilla institution to be decided Aug. 6

Posted

Costilla parents and other concerned citizens voiced their fears, frustrations and outrage Monday evening (July 29) to the Questa Independent School District superintendent and school board over the latest proposal to close their one remaining school, the Rio Costilla Southwest Learning Academy.

The tiny K-6 institution of about 30 students in far north Taos County consistently gets the best performance marks in the district.

This heartfelt and heated discussion has gone on since 2015, but suddenly there's a new theme on the table. After doing a walk-through two weeks ago of the older wing of the building, most of which has been closed off due to dilapidation, superintendent Michael Lovato and board president Daryl Ortega ordered an immediate assessment based on strong odors, dank air and evidence of rodents inside.

"The old school building is recommended to be permanently sealed against the existing gymnasium," said the report from DC Environmental of Albuquerque. "It is recommended that a structural engineer be retained to provide opinion regarding the soundness of the structure and the support to the existing gymnasium. The building envelope is unsound and allowing animals to be trapped within. These deceased animals, active fungal growth, deteriorating paper products and wet building materials are creating a serious potential health hazard and need to be corrected or isolated to minimize further intrusion into occupied spaces."

The budget-strapped Questa board has favored shutting down the tiny school as a financial drain and busing the 30-some students to Alta Vista Elementary in Questa. Costilla residents claim this will do lasting harm to both the students and the community, that their kids will be treated as outsiders in the Questa schools and that the alleged 20-minute bus ride will in fact take an hour and a half each way. "Putting kids on the bus for that long," parent Megan Jenkins argued, "that strikes me as a safety concern."

Several suggested that this sudden concern over the building's safety is just the board's latest strategy to find a more plausible excuse for closing the school than cost-cutting. "It looks like you've put a lot of time and energy into figuring out how to close this school," another parent said, "but not much into how to make it safe for students."

Lovato stressed that he's proposing just a temporary closure until the building can be restored to a habitable condition. "But nothing we decide to do here tonight is going to cost a couple thousand dollars," he added. "We're looking at hundreds of thousands of dollars to make this building safe for our kids." He reminded attendees repeatedly throughout the evening that he's the one accountable for students' safety and health - and that he has sole authority to make a decision if their safety is deemed to be at risk.

At the least, Lovato said, the school's heating, ventilating and air-conditioning system will need a major overhaul and redesign to ensure that air from the dilapidated older wing, which dates from 1958, will not be circulated throughout the newer wing that is still in use. If use of the 1958 gymnasium is to continue, he added, it will need to be assessed for structural integrity as well as for possible mold and dead animals beneath the hardwood flooring.

Board president Ortega agreed to postpone the final vote until the regular Aug. 6 board meeting. "But school starts Aug. 12," he reminded attendees, "so whatever we decide at that time, we all need to be on the same page. Nobody here is interested in closing this school, but we're all interested in finding a way to provide a safe environment for our children."

Lorraine Trujillo told the board that there isn't much around which the little Costilla and Amalia villages - combined populations of less than 500 - can revolve. "Close our school ... and you dissolve our community," she said.

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