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School memorializes well-loved deputy who made the ultimate sacrifice



Local dignitaries from Rio Rancho Public Schools, the City of Rio Rancho, Sandoval County and the family of late Deputy Joe Harris toss soil to commemorate the groundbreaking Monday afternoon for the new elementary school named after Harris in southwest Rio Rancho. The school is expected to be ready by the start of the 2020-21 school year.
(Gary Herron/ Rio Rancho Observer)

Lauded as a hero, not only for his work as a Rio Rancho Police officer and a Sandoval County deputy, the late Joe Harris has a memorial set in stone, now that a school in Rio Rancho has been named in his honor.

Harris was killed in a shootout in a cabin in the remote La Cueva area of the Jemez Mountains in the summer of 2009, and RRPS Superintendent Sue Cleveland said it was hard for her to believe almost 10 years have passed.

“He made the ultimate sacrifice as a police officer,” she said, “(but) Joe was even more to us.

“Joe was a constant in the Rio Rancho public school district is so many different ways,” she added. “He put such a positive face for law enforcement in front of young people. They loved him and would tell him the most incredible stories. … There was hardly a kid in the district who did not know who he was.”

Cleveland said she didn’t receive any dissenting calls about RRPS’s decision to name its newest elementary after Harris.

“I cannot tell you the number of calls and positive comments that we got,” she said. “The biggest concern was, ‘What’s taken you so long?’ Certainly, the ‘Great Recession’ intervened and with that came a cutback in terms of growth and dollars.

“We are just thrilled to be able to begin construction on this school,” she said. “It is wonderful and fitting that this school is named for him.”

“He had a heart of gold and he loved people,” added the district chief operations officer, former Rio Rancho Police Chief Mike Baker, who introduced Harris’s sons, Joe and David, and their wives.

“Joe and I were essentially hired on the same day together,” Baker said. “He knew everybody. … I would tell Joe, ‘Joe, when you retire, you’ve got to run for mayor.'”

Joe Harris Jr. told the gathering, “I think there’s no better way to repay him for everything he did for our city than by giving him an elementary school; our children will benefit from it.

“It’s what he would have wanted; he was all about the kids and the community,” the younger Harris said.

Board President Catherine Cullen thanked all who were going to make the school a reality, including Los Diamantes developer Pierre Amestoy and the Southern Sandoval County Arroyo Flood Control Authority.

“With the growth of the southern part of Rio Rancho, the board decided to move Joe Harris Elementary,” she said. “…We are at capacity at some of our schools in the south part of the district,” Cullen said. “We will be able to alleviate the overcrowding with this school.”

Rio Rancho Mayor Gregg Hull said he pitched the location of the new school to the district.

“They immediately got the vision; they immediately got on board and were supporting this project from the get-go,” he said.

Hull touted Amestoy’s help, along with the cooperation of SSCAFCA to resolve possible flooding, in light of 450 or so homes in a master-planned community soon to be built in the vicinity of the school.

“When we think about opening a school like this, we think about the fact Rio Rancho has been visionary from the very beginning, with Dr. Sue Cleveland having a vision and separating from (Albuquerque Public Schools in 1994) and creating our own school district so that we can live by our own standards and educate our own children and create what is arguably the greatest school district in the state of New Mexico.”

Later in the week, Vista Grande Elementary Principal Trent Heffner was named as the first principal at Joe Harris Elementary.

The new 87,630-square-foot school, to be designed by Wilson & Co. and built by Bradbury Stamm Construction, will be between 21st Avenue and Westside Boulevard, about 1 mile west of Unser Boulevard. It will have a capacity of 800 students in kindergarten through fifth grade. Bonds approved by school district voters in 2016 made the project possible.