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AIMS renews effort to open campus in Rio Rancho

RIO RANCHO, N.M. — The Albuquerque Institute for Mathematics and Science, the state’s top-ranked school, is making another attempt to open a location in Rio Rancho.

AIMS filed paperwork with the state Public Education Commission on Tuesday seeking a charter authorizing a new site in Rio Rancho. If the PEC approves the charter request, AIMS could launch in the city by fall 2019.

It’s the latest salvo in a long-running battle between the high-performing charter school and Rio Rancho’s school district.

In 2014, AIMS received a waiver from then-Secretary of Education Hanna Skandera allowing it to open at UNM West without applying for a new charter. Typically, charter schools must be reauthorized if they expand outside their original district.

Rio Rancho Public Schools sued the Public Education Department in 1st Judicial District Court in Santa Fe, arguing that the waiver did not adhere to proper procedure. Judge David K. Thomson ruled in PED’s favor in May 2017, prompting an appeal from RRPS.

Currently, AIMS is legally barred from opening the Rio Rancho site until the appeal is heard, though AIMS will return to Thomson’s courtroom to challenge the stay sometime this month.

AIMS’ attorney, Marty Esquivel, is also preparing to sue RRPS over alleged open meetings violations.

The district’s Board of Education was required to take a public vote to file the lawsuit against the PED in 2014, Esquivel says, but he can find no record of it. RRPS has disputed Esquivel’s interpretations of open meetings law.

AIMS director Kathy Sandoval told the Journal she is confident her school will get to Rio Rancho one way or another. The application for a new charter will provide another possible avenue, Sandoval said.

“We still think we did the right thing, but I have heard repeatedly from Rio Rancho that I didn’t do the right thing even though we had a waiver from the secretary, which was upheld in court,” Sandoval said. “I said, ‘OK, I’ll go ahead and drop another charter.’ And now what is the excuse going to be?”

Beth Pendergrass, spokeswoman for RRPS, said the district “has always stood by what is best for all children” and believes PED’s waiver did not follow statutory procedures.

“We are in receipt of the Notice of Intent to Submit a Charter Application submitted by the Albuquerque Institute for Mathematics and Science and are glad to see they are taking the appropriate steps to expand in a manner consistent with state law as established by the legislature,” Pendergrass said in an emailed statement.

Sandoval said she thinks it’s unfortunate Rio Rancho families have had to miss out on AIMS’ high-quality education while the legal battle drags on.

Now entering its 13th year of operation, the school has a waiting list of nearly 2,000 students and was recently rated the best school in New Mexico by The Washington Post. AIMS – a state-chartered school housed on the UNM South Campus – currently enrolls about 350 students in grades 6 to 12.

New Mexico Public Education Secretary-designate Christopher Ruszkowski said AIMS has a “proven track record of academic outcomes.”

The UNM West location was originally scheduled to launch in fall 2014 with 40 sixth-graders, adding a new grade each year until enrollment reached 350 students in grades 6 to 12.