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UNM West council raises AIMS concerns

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The UNM West Advisory Council on Friday questioned the wisdom and legality of Albuquerque Institute for Mathematics and Science expanding its program to the UNM West building in Rio Rancho.

During a special meeting, several council members also said they were disappointed the council received no information about the AIMS plan before reading about it in the newspaper. “We owe the public better than that,” council member and Sandoval County Manager Phil Rios said.

The UNM Board of Regents earlier this month gave preliminary approval to AIMS to use two rooms at UNM West to hold classes for 40 sixth-graders this fall. AIMS representatives defended the plan, saying their use of the building would only be temporary.

Council member and former City Manager James Jimenez asked about some legal issues during the meeting, noting that in August residents voted to keep the city’s gross receipts tax for higher education rather than redirect part of the tax to public safety, as a majority of the Rio Rancho City Council proposed.

Rio Rancho City Manager Keith Riesberg, also a member of the council, said the AIMS proposal would “change a facility that was funded in large part with their tax dollars to support a higher ed campus, and now you’re going to use a portion of that for something that was not meeting that intended role.”

Depending on what happens with the AIMS proposal, UNM West could lose access to the GRT funds its needs to construct more buildings on its campus, Riesberg said. Jimenez said the City Council could give the funds instead to New Mexico Highlands University or New Mexico State University.

Rio Rancho Public Schools Superintendent Sue Cleveland, also a member of the advisory council, said her board supported the higher education tax last summer to expand higher education opportunities. Cleveland said the RRPS board members “don’t want to be in a situation where they appear to be misleading the voters in Rio Rancho.”

Cleveland and Sen. Craig Brandt, R-Rio Rancho, who is not a member of the advisory council, said if local voters feel betrayed and believe educational bonds will not be used for their intended purpose, they could start voting down bonds for RRPS. The last bond election for RRPS received about 60 percent of the vote, after receiving 90 percent for many years.

Cleveland also questioned whether UNM West knew about the AIMS proposal last fall, at the time of the election, and kept it from the people.

Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque, who also serves as legal counsel for AIMS, responded to most of the concerns expressed by advisory council members.

He referred to UNM West as a “transitional building” for AIMS. He said he expects the UNM Regents will allow AIMS to use the existing UNM West building for no more than one year.

AIMS will pay rent to use the UNM classrooms, just as it has done in Albuquerque since 2007 for use of a building on the UNM south campus. This is not an attempt “to benefit from the financial support that this community has given to higher education,” he said.

He said AIMS met with UNM West last fall to explore the possibility of sharing a building, but the regents did not select Rio Rancho over two other possible locations for AIMS until January.

AIMS Principal Katharina Sandoval said the AIMS charter, which was approved by the state, requires the school to hold classes on UNM campuses. She noted state law requires charter schools to rent public buildings for classroom space in order to receive state educational dollars.

She also expressed concern, along with Regent Conrad James, that the advisory council was not focused enough on what was best for parents and kids, and the high-quality math and science classes her school could provide Rio Rancho.

“I will be very offended,” Cleveland said, “if you suggest we don’t care about kids.”

Advisory council chair Pauline Eisenstadt ended the meeting with the announcement that the council would send a letter to UNM West and the regents expressing its concerns, even though James said most of the proposed letter was not necessary.

On Friday, the state Public Education Commission, which grants and revokes charters for schools like AIMS, will meet in Albuquerque.

The agenda includes a discussion of recent amendments to the AIMS charter and its proposal to hold classes at UNM West.

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