Cash-strapped CISD looking at $1 million barn project

Cash-strapped CISD looking at $1...

CANUTILLO, Texas - The Canutillo Independent School District has faced a deficit budget over the last few years, along with a stagnant student population which a 2015 study revealed won't change for a few years.

Still, the district is planning to build a $1 million barn project for agriculture students. That has some questioning the motives of the CISD Board President, Laurie Searls. 

District officials call the proposed barn project a multi-purpose agriculture and science facility.  The project was first proposed at least four years ago, but up until now, did not have a funding source.

The proposed site for the barn is an empty lot owned by CISD, which is located across the street from Gonzalo & Sofia Garcia Elementary School on Westside Drive.

At one point, officials had considered building a middle school on the lot. That idea was scraped after a study commissioned in summer of 2015 by the Jacobs Engineering Group and Dejong Richter found that six elementary schools and two middle schools were running half-empty.

A Facilities Master Plan also showed that the district only had 8-percent student population growth since the 2006-07 school year.

For now, the land is being utilized by agriculture students.

Bruno Vasquez, the Executive Director of Facilities, said the $1 million project will include several features.

"We said, well, if we are going to do this project, we might as well include a classroom, animal pens and all the utilities required for that".

Board President Searls is a supporter of the barn project, but some question her motivation behind it. Searls lives just down the road from where the barn will be built.

She is also part of the civic group, 'Save The Valley', a group aimed at limiting development.

Developer Scott Winton believes Searls is abusing her position as board president.

He sat on a Facilities Advisory Committee last year, which advised the cash-strapped district to sell the lot for money."We have been involved in some other development, where they will use the school district's automated telephone line to call people," said Winton. 

He added the call would tell people to be sure to show up at a particular meeting and voice concerns about land use.

The district has been involved in other land development issues.

In March, led by Searls, some members of the Canutillo board attempted to approve a resolution against a low income development in Vinton. They argued the district cannot afford to take in more low-income students and the social problems they bring with them. 

The measure failed after opponents spoke against it.

The board would later release a statement, saying it's not against the development, but wants to preserve the "open space and rural character enjoyed by our community."

It's a statement reiterated by the district's spokesperson, Liza Rodriguez. "No one on the board, and no one in the district is against development," said Rodriguez.

CISD recently approached a developer who owns land attached to proposed barn site, and asked to buy around 300 square feet to build an access road for the proposed barn project.

Rodriguez said, "we were negotiating prices, and we didn't feel that what was on the table was a fair number."  

In the end, CISD would use eminent domain to take the land, paying the developer $6,000.

After years in the red, the district hopes to break even this year. 

When asked considering the financial situation for the district, is it a good time to invest $1 million in a barn facility, Rodriguez had some hesitation.

"Whenever it comes to facilities or providing something for our students, we try out best to make it happen," Rodriguez said.

The district is looking to secure a loan in January to help fund the barn project.

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