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In a fact-filled presentation during the June 25 Chaffee Board of County Commissioners meeting, Colorado Mountain College Vice President and Campus Dean Rachael Pokrandt reviewed the results of the CMC Feasibility Assessment research. The survey was designed to reveal whether or not the Salida School District is a viable community for annexation into the CMC tax district.

A CMC student photo. Data suggests that by year ten, a CMC Salida campus could serve 285 full time equivalent students, or 800 students taking one credit or more. Courtesy photo.

“We found that Salida is a viable community for annexation,” said Pokrandt. “Yes, there are enrollment projections, space concerns, but the survey is a crystal ball – activity projected 10 years out. We looked at communities that look demographically similar to you – comparing data from Rifle campus and data for the area of Carbondale through Basalt.”

“We project 285 FTE (full time equivalent) students,” said Pokrandt. “That is not 285 individual people, this is more like 800 students taking from one class to a full schedule of 15 credits a semester.”

While county commissioners expressed interest in how such a step would be executed if Salida School District taxpayers were to approve a ballot initiative, Pokrandt explained that the decision is not theirs to make; “A mill levy is a decision of the community to tax themselves – people must know this.”

The CMC Campus in Glenwood Springs. Every campus has a different feel, designed to meet the needs of the mountain community where it is situated. Courtesy photo,

“Our charter, created 52 years ago, says we serve Colorado mountain communities, but it is a decision made school district by school district, not county,” she explained. “There are two questions the community needs to ask itself. First, is higher education in your plan – in other words, what does your community need to take it to the next level? And second, is CMC the right vehicle to offer that to you?”

Pokrandt said that CMC is not selling itself to the community. She explained that this decision in no way impacts the CMC campus in BV, which is a separate school district. She stressed that CMC has a robust agenda, is highly impactful in the communities it serves and financially stable. Instead, she said “Communities pick us. They decide if we are a great fit or not.”

The CMC campus in Buena Vista. Photo by Henry DeKam.

The feasibility study results reveal that the city of Salida and town of Poncha Springs, which together make up the Salida School District are vibrant; with a community becoming younger, and attracting younger professionals with children.

The potential CMC Salida district (indeed the entire Chaffee County) is growing faster than the rest of the state as a whole, and educational attainment in the county is stronger than the state average, mirroring mountain communities that CMC already serves.

Also seen as important to a decision regarding a CMC Tax District Annexation: the community has a significant number of college-educated retirees (representing a strong adjunct faculty pool), and a current household income disparity that could be mitigated by the presence of higher education offered locally.

The CMC Leadville campus. Courtesy photo.

While these signs point to success, Pokrandt explained the need for much more community feedback, explaining that each CMC campus is custom-designed to the needs of the community in which it is located.

“Feedback on what programs are needed is critical. We also must ask – ‘what is the community’s tolerance for taxing yourself? What kind of programs do you think students want here?’” said Pokrandt. She cited as an example, the critical need for nurses at Heart of the Rockies Regional Medical Center, describing how a nursing program might be embedded right at the medical center campus.

As part of a potential program startup, she described the beginning of programming that could begin fairly immediately, with structural buildings around five years away. “We’re also interested in co-locating. There is the school district with their projected growth – there are needs in the community for child care, recreation and after-school programs.

A building on the CMC campus in Rifle. Courtesy photo.

Ponkrandt described a January, 2019 two-day campus tour.

“We did a [two-day campus tour] in January with the Salida School Board. That general feeling is that all our campuses are really different. We don’t come in and plop it down. We listen. We aren’t the silver bullet, we can’t solve all those things like housing, pre-K education, childcare issues. But once we are in a community, those things are deeply embedded in our approach.”

She reminded commissioners and the audience of how much change has occurred in higher education, highlighting what CMC “general transfer” courses can offer a diverse population. “There is something wonderful about a 16-year-old taking a philosophy class sitting next to a 67 year old who always wanted to take philosophy and finally can.”

Almost immediately CMC could have an economic impact; not just in significantly lowering the cost of college but adding jobs. Operationally, if voters approve the mill levy, CMC would add nine positions in Salida just in the first two years.

One other thing appears to set apart what CMC might do in Salida School District, versus other communities. While those other communities see excess funds go into the CMC general fund, CMC is willing for excess mill levy collected in Salida to remain on the books as capital reserves for Salida. This would allow those funds to accrue over time for building purchase or construction.

Some 24 Chaffee County organizations and individuals have already made their formal support statements. While Chaffee County Commissioners have already endorsed the concept, they did have questions. Chair Greg Felt asked for confirmation that it is the Salida School Board which will need to place the issue on the ballot (it does), and whether a communications program is planned.

Salida School District Superintendent David Blackburn said the school board is meeting Thursday, June 27, and will need to decide how to balance this ballot measure with another bond question related to the district’s growth. At issue; whether or not to place both on the ballot this November, or hold one of them back for consideration in 2020.

Regarding what some in the meeting called “a big, bold move for this community,” Commissioner Keith Baker added “Higher education is one thing I would bolster in the community. It brings so many other things – enrichment for people my age, the influence on the arts, jobs, the opportunities for the young. I am hoping the community embraces it.”

“If this is approved, it will be my job to be your campus leader and I want us to be wildly successful here,” said Pokrandt.