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RRPS board will ask for $60M bond, looks over budget

Work is ongoing at Cleveland High School to reconfigure the main entrance, funneling visitors through the office instead of providing access to the Concert Hall and east end of the campus.
(Gary Herron/Rio Rancho Observer)

It could have been much worse.

Rio Rancho Public Schools Chief Operations Officer Mike Baker told the school board Monday evening, during a discussion about the 2019 bond issue coming up in six months, “We could easily have $100 million of projects we could present to the board.”

Instead, and hoping for approval from voters in November, the school district will again place a $60 million bond request before voters — with no increase in taxes. Voters have never turned down bond issues, which appear about every four years, going back to the district’s origins in 1994.

The $60 million bond request, Baker said, is “that sweet spot for general-obligation bonds.”

Discussion of the bond issue was the lone topic at Monday’s hour-long meeting; a special board meeting and finance committee meeting took place two nights later.

Baker and Facilities Director Melanie Archibeque broke the eventual proceeds from the bonds down to $46 million to replace HVAC systems at most campuses, $3 million for updating the computer network system and $11 million to provide classroom expansion at Cleveland and Rio Rancho high schools for career-technical opportunities.

Bond issues in the past have often included plans for building new schools, but 77 percent of the 2019 bond proceeds must go to keeping the students, teachers and principals comfortable in the schools.

Baker likened the school district to the city of Rio Rancho: “new” but in desperate need of maintaining and updating the infrastructure.

HVAC issues have long plagued the district, Archibeque noted, and, in recent years, the district has replaced earlier swamp-cooler units with air-conditioning units, but only partially.

That resulted in two systems fighting each other, she said: Swamp coolers — with life expectancies of about 15 years — add water to cool, while AC units remove water, thus the need to replace the swamp coolers with the AC units. The swamp coolers have another common problem: leakage.

All told, her department received nearly 700 work orders regarding HVAC systems in the current school year.

Archibeque told the board nine properties need replacements. Superintendent Sue Cleveland said resolving the HVAC issue is the priority of every principal in the district — classrooms that are too cold in the winter and too hot in the spring aren’t conducive to learning.

“What you’re seeing is deferred maintenance,” Archibeque said, informing board members she has only three staff members who can work on the failing equipment.

The Information Technology Department needs at least $3 million so its network can be updated to not only maintain current systems, but also add capacity for the Future Ready Program.

Although this is 40 percent of the cost, the district will be able to leverage its funds against E-rate, a federal program that provides discounts to help schools and libraries obtain affordable telecommunications and internet access. So, a grant would pay 60 percent.

With the board’s hopes for career-technical opportunities to soon increase to include auto repair and welding classes, expansion is a needed at CHS and RRHS. Students at Independence High School will also be able to take advantage of new CTE courses, with district vans transporting them to CHS or RRHS.

1st look at new budget

On Wednesday, the school board convened again, lacking new member Katherine Covey and Ryan Parra, but had enough for a quorum for a budget review.

Parra was initially available via telephone, and he took part in voting to extend a contract for the summer lunch program through 2020 with the City of Rio Rancho, and to approve the firm of Accounting and Financial Solutions as the district’s auditor.

As part of the finance committee meeting, Baker first provided a quick review of the $160 million budget, with paperwork said to fill three binders, for the 2019-20 school year.

After Baker’s review, Sue Passell, executive director of Human Resources, detailed how her department carefully determines student enrollment from year to year, with funding from the state determined by student population.

Passell said that process is “very, very detailed,” with a lot of estimation.

The district knows the total number of fifth-graders departing elementary schools, but not necessarily which middle school those students are headed to. Similarly, two of the four middle schools’ eighth-grade students split their high school years between Cleveland and Rio Rancho high schools.

Getting a good grasp of the student population, by grade, helps principals determine how many teachers they’ll need at each grade, and Passell said the new governor is keen on school districts abiding by strict student-teacher ratios.

Also figuring into the estimations are the special-needs students, with C-level special-ed students in inclusive classrooms for half of each day, and D-level special-ed students in inclusive classrooms a quarter of each school day.

Of course, there are unknowns: How many kindergarten students, at least those who aren’t now at Shining Stars Preschool, are moving into the district, plus families moving into Rio Rancho bringing their students — but into which schools?

“We no longer get warnings,” Passell said.

Added to the mix is the limited number of classrooms at CHS and RRHS. The district “does not have enough classrooms to add more teachers,” she said.

Another finance committee meeting is set for Wednesday, again at 5:30, for the budget review to continue.

Baker said once his balanced budget has been endorsed by the school board, it goes to the state Public Education Department for preliminary approval, and then returns to the school board for its final approval. After another trip to the PED, the budget returns to Rio Rancho for implementation in July.

At its Monday (May 13) meeting, the board intends to craft the wording of the bond resolution to present to voters in November.