The Final Bell Game, 2021

Imagine this.

It’s 2021, it’s early autumn and the one hundredth and twenty-first Bell Game is about to kick off. Dutch Clark Stadium is at full capacity with standing room only because for one last time Pueblo wants to see the final game of Centennial versus Central. The last Bulldog versus Wildcat. The last time Pueblo can say The Bell rings red or blue. At least it’s the last time it means anything.

The oldest football rivalry west of the Mississippi River will be played for the last night as Pueblo, well old Pueblo, plays out one last tradition. Two years ago, back in 2019 that same old Pueblo had to restructure its school district and close high schools because of a lost decade.

In 2022, Pueblo City Schools plans to change the names and promises a Bell Game. Pueblo Combined H.S. will play Pueblo Central to keep the tradition alive. But it won’t be the same. Pueblo won’t be the same.

Few from outside of Pueblo County understand Puebloans’ mania and pride in defining itself by what high school one attended. Fewer understand what it means if Pueblo is forced to close one or more of its high schools in order to stave off Pueblo City Schools’ building crisis.

The district lists $750 million is needed for school repairs and upgrades. The district will ask for $200 million or more in a bond to upgrade, replace and combine schools.

The plans presented from closing schools and consolidating schools is a nightmare scenario that cuts across the very fabric of Pueblo.

What would it mean for there to be one less high school rivalry game? Would Pueblo be Pueblo if the Cannon, a trophy awarded to the yearly gridiron winner between Pueblo East Eagles and Pueblo South Colts, finds a final resting place at the school that survives the chopping block?

What if, when someone asks, “What high school did you go to?” and some Puebloans have to say, “I’m a Centennial Bulldog, but the school is closed now. My kids go to Pueblo Northside Combined – it’s the Soaring Beagles. We had to combine Eagles and Bulldogs.”

That’s not even the worst case scenario. In some plans Pueblo moves to a two high school system (Pueblo South and Central) leaving the northside without a high school all but guaranteeing a mass northside exodus to Pueblo County schools. And ending the tradition, at least in what it has been for a century, of the Bell Game.

Of the multiple plans consultants presented to the school district only one plan would keep the four high schools “open” with Centennial, East and South being replaced with new facilities. A Cannon-shot of sorts but there’s hope.

It’s the costliest plan but also the only one that keeps Pueblo a four high school city.

Why Pueblo City Schools faces a building crisis is simple enough to explain. The schools needed ongoing capital, upgrades, replacements and renovations. But with declining enrollment, because Pueblo was suffering through “Rust Belt” decline, and increases in personnel and maintenance expenses, costs left the district with too much to improve and a community unsupportive to tax itself to pay for improvements.

Add in leadership changes and other crises – the teachers’ strike, the district schools under threat of state takeover, and entire school quadrants trying to educate children out of poverty – the school district was a little preoccupied.

School enrollment, stagnant. Pueblo’s tax base, stagnant. Maintenance costs, rising. Competition from online schools and District 70.  The failings of “Pueblo-of-Old” has another possible casualty – its high school traditions.

This time, things are different because the threat is real. Even the school board and district administration know that closing high, middle and elementary schools will bring Puebloans out in protest.

Rallies will turn into more personal attacks, far worse than 2018’s teacher strike. Recalls for school boards will be launched. And Puebloans will call for administration cuts where the community will think a few hundred thousand dollars of leadership salaries could pay for the millions needed to keep schools open.

Too many schools need upgrades and the district needs new students at every school. The first can be solved by a vote for a bond. The latter is about a Pueblo in decline and new taxes won’t solve that.

Losing its most cherished tradition, its high school rivalries may be just enough to instill a sense of action back into the community. But where do you begin?

Pueblo County District 70 eats away at 60 once again by putting a second school in 60’s territory at CSU-Pueblo. Politicians, PEDCO-recruited business, doctors, professors and lawyers either are putting their kids in D70 or simply not even finding any part of Pueblo County attractive enough to live in. Pueblo City is aging to the point where there just aren’t enough families with school age children.

To save Pueblo’s identity it has to adopt that attitude, that same sense of mania and pride, where it’s unacceptable to abandon a school district that has given Pueblo its sense of uniqueness and recognition, rarely seen across the West in a town of this population size.

If the Bell falls silent, Pueblo falls silenced. If the Cannon doesn’t boom, that doesn’t mean just an end to football on quiet and cool autumn nights. That’s the sound of failure to Pueblo’s families and its future ringing across the West.