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PEC: No APS support makes AIMS waiver request inadequate

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Albuquerque Institute of Mathematics and Science officials want to expand to UNM West, shown here. However, the question of whether doing so is legal is far from settled. (Rio Rancho Observer—GARY HERRON photo)

Albuquerque Institute of Mathematics and Science officials want to expand to UNM West, shown here. However, the question of whether doing so is legal is far from settled. (Rio Rancho Observer—GARY HERRON photo)

SANTA FE — The New Mexico Public Education Commission voted unanimously Friday that the request from Albuquerque Institute for Mathematics and Science for a waiver of state laws that might prevent it from expanding to Rio Rancho “was inadequate under the law.”

State education chief Hanna Skandera granted the waiver on May 16.

AIMS wants to use two classrooms in the UNM West building at City Center in Rio Rancho.

The school is lining up a few teachers, some of whom will come from its existing facility on UNM’s South Campus, to offer classes this fall to 40 sixth-graders.

PEC Chairwoman Carolyn Shearman, in a prepared statement during the meeting, said any waiver request to the state’s Secretary of Education, under the Public School Code, must include evidence of support from the local school board for the requesting school.

Shearman said the AIMS charter school did not include a letter of support from Albuquerque Public Schools, which she called its “local school board,” when asking Skandera for a waiver.

“The Charter Schools Act is clear that the governing council or board of a charter school is not a local school board,” she added.

“AIMS does not have the required permission of the PEC nor of the secretary to expand to the UNM West campus,” she said, before inviting the commissioners “to ask questions of our attorney as to the legality of this waiver.”

Before taking a final vote, the PEC gave representatives of AIMS and Rio Rancho Public Schools, which opposes the expansion, three minutes each to state their case.

“I find it very interesting that we are being held to a standard of having to get permission from the Albuquerque Public Schools, with whom we have no relationship,” said state Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, general counsel for AIMS.

“We are a state-chartered charter school. Our finances are completely separate from them. They have no authority over AIMS whatsoever,” he added.

“We got the waiver because this commission approved an expansion from AIMS,” he said, referring to a February 2013 meeting at which the PEC approved a charter amendment from AIMS for its expansion.

“We believe that that waiver was misguided in the fact that it was granted, and the granting of the waiver did not comply with the statutes, and that the secretary exceeded her authority, whether she intended to or not,” said Charlotte Hetherington, legal counsel for RRPS.

RRPS board President Carl Harper shared a letter from the New Mexico School Boards Association, which offered “strong support of the Rio Rancho Board of Education’s objection to the N.M. Secretary of Education’s waiver of laws, regulations and procedures related to the creation of a new charter school in the Rio Rancho school district.”

After leaving the meeting, Harper described an unequal playing field with the presence of charter schools, which have access to waivers and additional money that the state does not make available to traditional public schools.

“I find it fascinating that the position of the Public Education Commission is that APS could authorize AIMS to move into the Rio Rancho Public Schools (district),” Ivey-Soto said after stepping out of the meeting.

RRPS has argued state law does not allow charter schools to expand across district boundaries.

New Mexico Public Education Department spokesman Larry Behrens said, in an email on May 1, “AIMS followed all appropriate procedures” when it submitted its waiver request.

In granting the waiver, Skandera wrote that AIMS’s request met the requirements of 22-2-2.1(B)(3) NMSA 1978, which says the waiver request must be “supported by the teachers at the requesting school and the requesting school’s local school board.”

UNM has not yet made a final decision on allowing AIMS to hold classes at UNM West, said Wynn Goering, campus CEO, in an email Tuesday.

The UNM Regents voted last month to permit AIMS to expand for one year either on UNM’s South Campus or at UNM West based on a consultation with President Bob Frank and resolution of legal matters. The regents said that if legal matters were resolved, AIMS would not automatically go to UNM West, but it would give Frank and AIMS the flexibility to work on a variety of options.

Hetherington told the PEC’s legal counsel, in an email on May 21, RRPS was evaluating the possibility of appealing Skandera’s decision, using a state rule that would allow RRPS to petition a state district court within 30 days of when the waiver was granted.

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