The College of Santa Fe is playing lead actress in a drama with a twist: It has become a comedy or, if you prefer, a farce. CSF is a damsel in distress if ever there was one, but she has been now lying on the train tracks of impending doom through the heroic but failed efforts of so many suitors, she herself must be wishing the damned train would just round the bend and finish the job.
The latest hero vying for a chance to rescue the maiden is the City of Santa Fe. Mayor David Coss has proposed the city issue a revenue bond (or bonds) in an amount sufficient to satisfy the college’s ever-swelling debt, an act that would also result in the purchase of the college’s land and facilities by the city.
This, after the college has been courted—and rejected—by the Savannah College of Art and Design, Laureate Education, Inc. and the state of New Mexico. And that’s just a summary of the major courtships; there were several flirtations along the way. But none of these organizations and entities have the same stake in the college that the city does. The college’s economic boost to Santa Fe has been estimated as high as $25 million annually. The city desperately needs to retain, rather than export, its youth population. And the demise of CSF—an established liberal arts school and a fledgling art school with some rare assets in film, theater and writing—would leave an uncomfortable hole between the community college and St. John’s College.
Add that death for CSF likely means at least intensive care for the Santa Fe Art Institute and the gruesome specter of private development on a swath of land big enough to legitimately be considered one of the city’s vital organs, and it starts to make sense the city would hasten to borrow more than $35 million in order to secure both higher education and the property.
Unlike several other rescuers that have rode past as the college squirms—some with the appearance of plucky heroes, others looking more like banditos—Coss is intent that CSF remain an art school. It must have something to do with arts and culture pretty much being the economic driver in town and the knowledge that the city gets something close to a 5-to-1 return for every dollar it invests in art. That’s a fair sight better rate of return than Thornburg Mortgage stock.
If the economic impact to the region is so significant, why isn’t Coss proposing a joint city/county effort? The answer, Coss tells SFR, is he’d be happy to work with the county and grateful for the help, but he’s not going to wait around for it or enter the drawn-out negotiating process such collaborations usually require. There’s a phrase, I think, about pots and either being on or off them.
Of course, the Santa Fe City Council is going to determine whether or not anything happens at all, beginning with a vote on Wednesday, April 29. If it approves a resolution directing city staff to negotiate with potential operators and investigate bond options, the process will move forward. After 60 to 90 days, staff would return with a proposal and a super-majority of Council votes would be required to approve issuance of a bond.
At this point, the most likely operator is Laureate Education (in a dramatic return to the scene, just as the train rounds the bend). It is still undetermined whether or not a request for proposals will need to be issued in order to lease the school to an operator.
But assuming Laureate is the real contender, the following will be key points:
• What is the strategy and vision for the school and how are they in alignment with the goals of Santa Fe’s economic development plan and the ethos of taxpayers and voters?
• What tuition structure will ensure Santa Feans (and New Mexicans) are able to attend and benefit from what would normally cost $30,000 a year?
• How will it be ensured that revenues from the use of the property cover any bonds issued, so taxpayers don’t get stuck with the bill (we all know the Railyard Community Corporation is still struggling to cover the debt service on the Railyard property)?
• Who will pay for the deferred maintenance on the campus, which may be as much as $20 million?
• How much of the campus will be reserved for the use of complementary entities that provide a use in conjunction with the city’s goals and ideals (continuation and expansion of the Art Institute, a high school for the arts, New Mexico Filmmaker’s Intensive, an expanded version of Santa Fe Complex, for example)?
As Jared Diamond points out in his book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, it is those societies that choose short-term benefit over long-term value that fail. The school is too important to allow failure, too critical to be left to lie fallow for even a while. But if the mayor’s going to climb on a white horse and the city’s going to posse up, we’d better pick that damsel up this time and not just roll her off the tracks and toward the nearby cliff.