Before leaving the position, then-Public Education Department Secretary-designate Christopher Ruszkowski put into motion plans to create a “new” school district in New Mexico.
After a request from the Pueblo of Santa Ana, Ruszkowski recommended merging Rio Rancho Public Schools with the Santa Ana Pueblo to essentially form its own district, resulting in students attending Rio Rancho Public Schools instead of Bernalillo Public Schools, where kids currently go.
“I am recommending the formation of a ‘new’ school district consisting of the current Rio Rancho School District and including, geographically and otherwise, the Santa Ana Pueblo. If adopted, students from the Santa Ana Pueblo shall become officially registered to this new district,” Ruszkowski wrote in a formal letter, dated Dec. 31, that was obtained by the Journal.
The governor of the Pueblo of Santa Ana could not be reached for comment.
The reasoning outlined in Ruszkowski’s letter is that Rio Rancho Public Schools currently serves more Native American students and has a history of better results for Native students compared with Bernalillo Public Schools.
In 2018, 31.2 percent of Native American students in Rio Rancho Public Schools were reading at grade level and 24 percent were on par in math. However, PED data show that 14.9 percent of Native American students in Bernalillo Public Schools were reading at grade level and 7.4 percent were on grade level in math.
Bernalillo Public Schools Superintendent Keith Cowan told the Journal that he just found out about the pueblo’s request and was not expecting it.
The Journal also obtained the Pueblo of Santa Ana’s proposal on the matter, which indicates the pueblo has been working on the request for at least several months.
A three-page proposal, dated Oct. 4, says the pueblo is aiming to transfer students from the Santa Ana Pueblo to Rio Rancho Public Schools with more ease than the formal transfer process allows.
Pueblo bus routes would be adjusted to support families who send their kids to Rio Rancho Public Schools, and the pueblo would buy a school bus and build roads specifically for this purpose, according to the proposal.
The document also suggests the transfer would be optional for families, although Ruszkowski’s letter does not include voluntary language.
According to the proposal, over 100 Santa Ana students attend Bernalillo Public Schools.
Rio Rancho Public Schools spokeswoman Beth Pendergrass said in a statement that the proposal is on the district’s radar.
“We are aware of the proposal by the Pueblo of Santa Ana, which we understand is being reviewed by the Public Education Department. In any case, we are committed to providing a quality education for every student who attends Rio Rancho Public Schools,” her statement said.
Ruszkowski said in his letter that a public hearing has to be held within 90 days of his recommendation.
Because Ruszkowski is no longer at the department since Michelle Lujan Grisham became governor on Jan. 1, the next education secretary will ultimately decide whether the change will occur.
In an email, Tripp Stelnicki, a spokesman for Lujan Grisham, said Lt. Gov. Howie Morales, who’s taking over PED secretary duties on an interim basis, “will be taking a look at this as a means of getting up to speed on the issue.”