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‘Branch community college’ proposed for El Rito

Northern New Mexico College's El Rito campus would be back in business if a bill under consideration at the Legislature is approved. (Courtesy of Nnmc)

Northern New Mexico College’s El Rito campus would be back in business if a bill under consideration at the Legislature is approved. (Courtesy of NNMC)

A bill that would permit reopening Northern New Mexico College’s historic El Rito campus as a branch community college for vocational and technical classes is making progress at the Legislature.

Senate Bill 431, sponsored by Democratic Sens. Richard Martinez of Española and Carlos Cisneros of Questa, would create a unique governing structure for the El Rito site, with Northern’s college president and administration overseeing the operation instead of creating a separate bureaucracy for the branch.

The El Rito campus would receive no money through the state’s higher education funding formula and there would be no line item appropriation for it in the state budget. But Northern – whose main campus is in Española – would get credit in the funding formula for student credit hours and degrees, and certificates awarded at El Rito.

The branch campus’ primary funding source would be a property tax generated within the boundaries of area school districts that would require voter approval. An analysis prepared by the Legislature says a 2 mill levy in the Española, Pojoaque Valley and Mesa Vista districts would generate $1.2 million a year for the branch school.

On the Senate floor Thursday, Martinez said a previous administration at Northern had dropped vo-tech courses years ago and that it’s “very important” to bring them back. He said Los Alamos National Laboratory is willing to partner with Northern on trades programs for students.

“But if we’re not offering the trades programs, we can’t educate them,” said Martinez.

Cisneros said LANL expects to hire 4,000 new employees in coming years due to retirement attrition. “We need to start training those people,” he said.

Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, said vocational training “as a part of adult education is crucial.”

There have been no college classes at the El Rito campus since about four years ago.

Sen. Mark Moores, R-Albuquerque, said an El Rito operation “really could be a gem.” He said El Rito has “one of the most beautiful settings for a college probably in America,” although the last time he passed through, the college buildings “were looking pretty dilapidated.”

The bill passed the Senate 38-0. It still needs House approval.

Jake Arnold of El Rito, executive director of an advocacy group that supports Northern and in particular re-use of the El Rito campus, said the group is in favor of SB 431. La Sociedad Venceslao Jaramillo is named after the man who founded the college in 1909, and who was a prominent territorial and early statehood civic figure.

“The original name of the school founded in El Rito by Jaramillo, with the support of then-former territorial New Mexico governor LeBaron Bradford Prince, and funding provided by the territorial legislature, was the Spanish American Normal School,” Arnold wrote in a recent letter to lawmakers. “The Jaramillo family donated the land for the school’s ‘home’ campus in El Rito.”

“We applaud the efforts of Senators Carlos Cisneros and Richard Martinez to carry forward the vision of Jaramillo, Prince and the citizens of El Rito for an institution in Northern New Mexico that, in today’s terminology, would have as its mission a ‘community college’ curriculum to meet the needs of our young and continuing education students in this part of the state,” wrote Arnold.

“It’s a way to bring back the original mission of Northern New Mexico College,” he said in an interview. “… That’s all we here around here is ‘What happened to all those other (vo-tech) programs?” Arnold said. “… Not everyone who goes to college wants to go on and get a Ph.D. The community wants those programs back.”

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