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Paonia grants temporary variance to preschool

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With 13 items of new business on its Sept. 12 agenda, the Paonia board of trustees tabled two items, at the urging mayor pro tempore David Bradford.

A public hearing on proposed changes to the town municipal code was tabled to the Oct. 10 meeting. Notice of the hearing in the Delta County Independent was published 13 days prior to the meeting, while state statute requires a 15-day notification deadline, noted Bradford.

The agenda item on the ordinance amending the changes was also tabled to Oct. 10 in order for the town to re-publish the item in accordance with state statute.

A second hearing that was also improperly noticed was held, but a final decision was tabled to the Oct. 10 meeting. Wildflower Children's Collective (WCC) pre-school was granted a temporary variance from the town to operate at the Delta County School District's Energy Tech building in Paonia.

Because the school plans to open Oct. 16, "There is a time urgency," said Mayor Charles Stewart. The board went ahead with the gathering of public comment and board discussion, with a final decision to be made after the hearing is re-noticed and members of the public have an opportunity to comment, said Stewart.

At a Sept. 7 public meeting, the four-member Paonia Planning Commission voted unanimously to recommend approval of the variance to the board. Town staff also supports the variance. Town administrator Ken Knight explained that while it is town staff's opinion that a preschool existing within a school building is consistent with the land use in that area, a private school operating within a public building is not allowed by right, nor does it fall under permitted uses under current town code. The only option was for the applicant to apply for a variance, said Knight.

The WCC is designed as a feeder school for the North Fork School of Integrated Studies, an alternative public school operating within Paonia Elementary School. The school was formed in 2016 by a group of parents and teachers who had a vision for a preschool. Because the Paonia Backpack Early Learning Academy (BELA) Paonia school is full, and North Fork Montessori at Crawford has a waiting list, there is a need for a feeder preschool program in Paonia for families whose children will be attending NFSIS, said WCC teacher/director Heather Ramsey.

While it is a private school, the WCC will not make a profit, said Ramsey. "We just wanted to start a preschool as soon as possible." The process for obtaining non-profit status takes six to eight months and costs $3,000, with no guarantee of obtaining the status. The group formed a limited liability corporation in order to get the process started. Until then they are operating under the umbrella of The Learning Council.

If the group were able to obtain tax-exempt status, explained Mayor Charles Stewart, it would be considered a public entity and no variance would be required.

The group has worked closely with the Delta County Joint School District, which submitted a letter in support of the collective's use of a classroom in the Energy Tech building. The group is in the process of obtaining a license, with the hope that the school district will eventually take over the school.

The board also entered into executive session to discuss a personal matter particular to the town public works director and finance officer.

Following the closed session, an open session was conducted to discuss a letter of complaint submitted to the mayor and board of trustees by town administrator, Kenneth Knight. The letter was written by Knight on behalf of himself and four town employees, clerk Corinne Ferguson, finance officer Cindy Jones, public works director Travis Loberg and building official Dave Coleman.

All four employees signed the letter, which Knight read at the meeting. It states, in part, that town trustee Suzanne Watson has made statements in public, in violation of the board's Standards of Conduct. Those statements, according to the letter, now appeared "on social media being presented as fact." The letter also alleges that Watson has accused the town clerk and administrator of "misusing Town vehicles and/or resources and/or salaried time for personal use."

The letter also states that in a letter to town attorney Bo Nerlin, Watson "claims that the Building Inspector is 'compromised,'" which Knight called "a serious alligation (sic) of corruption."

Knight said that all of the employees requested that the letter not be addressed in executive session.

Per a motion made by Mayor Pro Tempore David Bradford, the issue will be referred to the town's personnel and finance committee.

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