Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
Northern New Mexico College is looking to return to its roots in El Rito. But it will need help from voters in five surrounding public school districts to make it happen.
The newly formed board for the NNMC branch community college – made up of representatives from the Chama Valley, Española, Jemez Mountain, Mesa Vista and Pojoaque Valley school districts – this month approved a joint resolution establishing a branch community college district.
The board passed a resolution calling for a mill levy ballot question that, if approved by voters in November, would provide a recurring funding stream to pay the cost of operation, maintenance and capital improvements at the college’s El Rito campus.
Now with a main campus in Española, the college was founded 110 years ago as the Spanish-American Normal School. The state constitution lists the college as one of 10 state educational institutions and identifies El Rito, about 30 miles north of Española, as the college’s seat.
The tax question will be on the ballots only of voters residing within the boundaries of the five school districts, which cover territory in Rio Arriba, Santa Fe and Taos counties. It will ask voters to consider a two-mill increase in property taxes to fund the branch community college, which will offer technical and vocational courses, and has been pitched to the Legislature as a way to train people for jobs at Los Alamos National Laboratory.
Property taxes are based on the assessed value of a home, which is one-third of the property’s market value. On a home with a market value of $300,000 and an assessed value of $100,000, homeowners can expect to pay $200 per year, or $16.67 per month, more in property taxes from the two-mill increase.
NNMC President Richard Bailey Jr. said that, if approved, the tax would annually generate roughly $2.4 million.
“That is sufficient for us to do a few things,” Bailey said last week. “One, we will be able to introduce a plumbers and pipe fitters, and an electrician program to start off, because we know job demand is high in those two areas. Then, using market analysis, we’ll also be able to explore adding programs.”
Bailey said he wasn’t willing to commit to bringing back to El Rito some of the heritage arts programs – like Spanish Colonial woodcarving and Rio Grande-style weaving – which were moved to the Española campus a few years ago, downgraded from for-credit courses to continuing education classes.
The move came after what was once the Northern New Mexico Community College transitioned from a community college to a four-year school offering baccalaureate programs.
“I want to be very careful about making promises for other programs at this point,” he said. “I want there to be a complete localized job analysis before we introduce more programs. I want to be sure any program is tied to sustainable job demands.”
Facing a $900,000 budget gap in 2015, a year after the school changed its mission and became a four-year college, NNMC also eliminated its automotive repair and radiological technology programs, and the El Rito campus effectively closed.
NNMC, which suffered through years of financial distress under the college’s previous administration, lost nearly a third of its enrollment and now serves about 1,100 students.
Legislation approved this year
The revitalization of the El Rito campus was made possible by Senate Bill 431, passed by unanimous vote in both the House and the Senate during this year’s legislative session and signed by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.
Introduced by senators Richard Martinez of Española and Carlos Cisneros of Questa, the bill created a unique governing structure for the El Rito site, with the branch college operating within the administrative framework of NNMC. Other branch colleges, like the University of New Mexico branches in Los Alamos and Taos, and New Mexico State University branches in Alamogordo, Grants and elsewhere, have their own bureaucracies and their own presidents.
A board made up of representatives of the public school districts will serve primarily in an advisory capacity. Among its duties are to approve an annual budget for recommendation to NNMC’s board of regents. The bill also gives the board the authority to certify and conduct an election for tax levies for the branch community college, which is what it did at its July 11 meeting, beating a July 15 deadline to get the 2-mill proposal on the ballot in the three counties.
The bulk of the college’s funding would come from the proposed property tax. However, the branch would receive a small appropriation from the state’s Higher Education Department that is based on the number of full-time equivalent students attending the school.
Bailey said Los Angeles-based ECMC Foundation, which according to its website works to “inspire and to facilitate improvements that affect educational outcomes – especially among underserved populations – through evidence-based innovation,” is providing the college branch with a $750,000 grant.
“Ultimately, it’s a five-year grant, but the bulk is given and spent in the first three years. That helps us jump start our program,” Bailey said.
The branch college’s budget will include free transportation for students, leaving from high schools in the respective school districts.
Bailey said the college would launch a campaign to inform voters about the mill levy election and how the revenue generated from it would benefit students and the communities within the branch college district.
“The programs we offer will have dual credit opportunities so high school students will have access to free education that will further their progress for an associate degree or a journeyman certificate,” he said. “Beyond that, it’s an economic development initiative. When employers and contractors have to hire trade people from out of state, I feel I let the community down as a college president. We should be keeping that money in northern New Mexico, because those are jobs in high demand and those salaries are so attractive.”
Learning a trade
Tirizo Lopez serves on the school board in the Chama Valley Independent School District, one of the school districts that voted to create the community college district. He formerly served as president of the Northern New Mexico Labor Council and over the years worked closely with unions representing plumbers and pipe fitters, and electricians. The Chama Valley district’s representative on the branch community college’s advisory board, he says he recognizes the opportunities the NNMC branch can provide students.
“I’ve dealt with numerous labor organizations throughout the state and I can tell you these organizations offer great salaries, great benefits and opportunities for advancement,” he said, adding that a journeyman laborer can start at about $17 per hour. “I’m excited about this because I know a lot of high school students don’t want to go to (a four-year) college, so this is a great opportunity for our youth in the northern part of the state.”
Lopez said Chama Valley schools now offer a dual-credit course through UNM-Taos and have seen it work.
“This year, we had five or six students who graduated and already had associate degrees,” he said. “This program will allow them to learn a trade and get them out the door and into a successful career. When they leave, there will be people knocking on the door for them.”
Los Alamos National Laboratory, just “up the hill” from NNMC, is one of them, he said. A nice thing about that is that young people in northern New Mexico can get their education and jobs close to home and family, keeping them in the area to help the local economy.
Lopez said he has a relative pursuing a plumbers and pipe fitters license who had to travel to Albuquerque and Los Alamos to get his schooling.
“I think when people see the benefits, they’ll go for it,” he said when asked if he thought voters would support an increase in property taxes. “At the end of the day, I think they want to see people get access to training they need to succeed. This will benefit the whole community.”
Resurrecting college’s mission
Michael Martin grew up on a ranch in El Rito and went through Mesa Vista schools. As of March, he is president of the NNMC’s board of regents.
“I have fond memories of the school being the focal point of the community,” he said of the school on the El Rito campus. “The last few years, it has been really, really quiet.”
Martin said he’s excited about the prospects of revitalizing the campus.
So is Jake Arnold, executive director of the advocacy group La Sociedad Venceslao Jaramillo, named for the man who founded the college in 1909, three years before New Mexico achieved statehood.
The Spanish-American Normal School was established to provide teacher training for Spanish speakers, making it the country’s first institution created to specifically to serve Hispanics.
Decades later, in 1971, the school opened the Española campus and took on offering vocational programs, becoming the state’s first community college.
“This returns Northern New Mexico College and resurrects its community college mission,” Arnold said of El Rito’s branch community college status. “Four-year programs are great for the community, but the community has been suffering from the abandonment of its career programs. Now we’re on the way to getting El Rito back up to a reusable campus.”
And, he says, the campus will be used in the right way.
“This is a return to career education under the old concept of being a purely vo-tech (vocational-technical) school, which is what the community needs,” he said.
Arnold said it has been a long time coming.
“This has been a 10-year struggle for us,” he said of efforts to better utilize the El Rito campus. “Now we have to make sure voters see it our way and pass the mill levy. If they don’t, the El Rito campus will just be a shell with no funding.”
President Bailey, who lives in a home on the El Rito campus, said he hopes voters see it their way, too.
“I will have been here three years in October. During that time, the single most common question I’ve received from our community members is what are you going to do to bring back community education?”, he said. “The second most common question is what are you doing to revitalize the El Rito campus?
“It’s more than a logistical question, it’s an emotional question. Revitalizing in some way our original campus would for us be like feeding two birds with one seed.”