Family gives $75,000 for memorial

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By David Giuliani

The Las Vegas City Schools received a $75,000 check on Monday from a local family to help pay for the district’s memorial in honor of those who died in a drunken-driving crash two years ago.

Members of the Gonzales family, who lost loved ones in the crash, submitted the check to Superintendent Rick Romero. The money will pay for a sizable portion of the Robertson High School project, he said.

“They don’t want the lasting reminder of their son (Paul) to be anything other than a reminder for our kids not to drink and drive,” said Romero, who started as superintendent in July.

In late June, the district unveiled the memorial — five pillars of stacked stone — in honor of the five victims of the Collins-Gonzales family killed by drunken driver Dana Papst, who was driving the wrong way on Interstate 25 in November 2006.

Last week, board member Ramon “Swoops” Montao told the Optic that he was concerned with the $175,000 cost of the memorial, although he stressed that the monument sends an important message to children.

On Monday, however, Montao acknowledged that the project was within budget.

Franken Construction was the project’s low bidder at $176,800, according to documents obtained through an Optic public records request earlier this summer. The only other bidder was New Image Construction, which came in at $237,000.

Montao had said earlier that the board had been taken by surprise with the monument’s costs, but he said Monday that he confused the DWI memorial with another project.

He said he was under the impression that the district would get a contribution from San Miguel County, which obtained a legislative appropriation a couple of years ago to place a DWI memorial somewhere in the county. He also said he understood that the district would be getting the funding for the entire project from other entities.

Board member Phillip Vigil said he, too, had the impression that the money for the memorial would come from elsewhere and that the district would only be donating the land for the memorial, along Mills Avenue next to the oversized Cardinal head at Robertson High School.

County Manager Les Montoya said the county had received a legislative appropriation of nearly $24,000 and that the county had talked with the City Schools about dedicating the money toward its memorial. However, he said the county never entered into any agreement with the district.

He said the county is now in talks with the West Las Vegas district about giving the money for a memorial at West Las Vegas High School.

West Superintendent Jim Abreu confirmed Montoya’s statement, saying his district wanted an area called Arissa’s Park in honor of Arissa Garcia, a West senior who was the crash’s only survivor.

Abreu said the low-key park is planned for just north of the high school near some trees between the gym and the main school area. It would include tables with umbrellas, among other things, he said.

He noted that the district already has a memorial at West Las Vegas Middle School, where trees are planted in honor of the deceased and Arissa.

Monday’s check from Ralph, Maxine and Ashley Gonzales to the City Schools came a couple of days after a controversy erupted over the project’s funding. On Saturday, the Albuquerque Journal reported that Montao expressed concern about the funding for the project — a story that was picked up statewide.

Rick Romero, the superintendent, said Monday that the district has $105,000 in legislative appropriations for the project as well as $6,000 in private donations — $5,000 in a previous check from the Gonzaleses and $1,000 from Sanchez Dental.

That gives the district a total of $111,000 for the project; the remainder would be $64,000, considerably less than Monday’s check for $75,000 from the Gonzaleses.

“I won’t deposit the full amount of the check. We’ll scale it back to what the balance is,” the superintendent said. “They (Gonzaleses) want to do this in the name of their son. Paul represented all that is good in this community — about giving to children.”

“The message we’re trying to send our community is don’t drink and then get behind the wheel,” he said.

Rick Romero’s predecessor, Pete Campos, a state senator who helped get legislative money for the project, said the district’s plan was to pay for the rest of the project with state capital outlay money and voter-approved bond funds.

Campos called the memorial an “outdoor learning center.”

“It’s a living, breathing facility that is in our community that reminds us every day of the tragedy. It affected a family and an entire community,” he said.