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Elementary School Delayed

RIO RANCHO, N.M. — Rio Rancho students will have to wait at least another year for a new elementary school, which would help alleviate overcrowding at elementaries that are now at or above capacity.

The Rio Rancho Public Schools Board voted unanimously on Monday to postpone the opening of Joe Harris Elementary for at least one year after Superintendent Sue Cleveland told members the district does not have enough money to build, open or operate another elementary right now.

“Us not moving forward is not because we don’t need this school right now,” she said. “Because we do need it. I simply don’t see how in the world we can make it happen.”

The district had planned to open the school for the 2012-2013 school year near 5th Avenue and 10th Street, which is west of Unser between Northern and Southern.

Al Sena, executive director of facilities, said the district has $8.6 million in bond money set aside for the school but still needs an additional $8 million to $11 million, which it hopes to get from the state or the 2012 bond election.

Cleveland told the board Monday that even if the district had the money to build the school, it would not have the money to open or operate it. Construction costs do not include technology and the furnishings. The district has to pay for new staff with operational funds. Student enrollment helps fund the teachers, but the district, she said, would have to find a way to pay a principal and more custodians.

Board member Craig Brandt said the postponement was the right course of action. He said the district should reconsider realigning the attendance boundaries to help relieve overcrowding until it can open Joe Harris. There are other schools like Sandia Vista, that could take more students. But Cleveland said the move would only be temporary.

“When we build the new school, we will have to move them back,” she said. “There will be a lot of concern in the community over that.”

The school would help alleviate overcrowding at Martin Luther King Jr., Maggie Cordova, Ernest Stapleton, Puesta del Sol and Cielo Azul. Sena said Tuesday that many elementary schools are at or above capacity and the delay will mean a strain on resources. Martin Luther King has almost 1,000 students and several other schools are near 900 enrollment.

Board president Don Schlichte expressed some reservations about the delay before voting.

“I’m concerned that two years from now, we will regret not doing this (opening the school),” he said. “We may not have the money now, but we may have the money to open it later.”

Hopes of that help went away with the recession. The state, when it had more money, gave capital outlay funds to districts so they could construct new buildings and complete renovation projects. The funding was in addition to the money districts receive to pay for everyday operating costs.

In February, Sena told the board not to expect any capital outlay funds from the state in the coming fiscal year, which starts July 1.

The school is named for the former Sandoval County Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Joe Harris, who was shot and killed while on a stakeout in July 2009. During the two decades before his death, Harris volunteered countless hours in the schools. He helped implement the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program in the district during the 1990s and was also apart of the Gang Resistance and Training Program. In addition, Harris participated in reading and other programs.

Photo Credit – JOurnal File
Cutline – The planned Joe Harris Elementary School is named after a former Sandoval County Sheriff’s sergeant who was killed during a 2009 stakeout. Harris’ dog, Harley, is shown last year.