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UNM favors AIMS expansion, cites legal concerns

RIO RANCHO, N.M. — The University of New Mexico has offered additional support for the expansion plans of the Albuquerque Institute for Mathematics and Science, but also is watching whether legal issues might prevent the charter school from using UNM West classrooms.

Since 2007, AIMS has provided a nationally-ranked education for grades 6-12 at a UNM building in Albuquerque not used by college students. It proposes to expand to Rio Rancho this fall, using two classrooms at UNM West for 40 sixth-graders.

The proposal has won support from the Rio Rancho Governing Body, but is opposed by Rio Rancho Public Schools and members of the UNM West Advisory Council, which have questioned the legality of the expansion and the prudence of mixing college and middle school students.

On Thursday, AIMS’ plan to replicate its successful model found support at the UNM Board of Regents’ Academic/Student Affairs & Research Committee.

“The test of whether the AIMS approach will be sustained with a different population in a different place is a valid test to support,” said Regent Brad Hosmer.

The committee voted by acclamation, as Hosmer put it, “to support the expansion of the AIMS school through the use of space where available on UNM facilities in Rio Rancho, with the qualification that the legal impediments are cleared as soon as practical.”

At a meeting of the UNM West Advisory Council on Wednesday, UNM President Bob Frank responded to concerns about the expansion raised by four members of the advisory council in a March 27 letter sent to him and the UNM regents.

“It’s a shame it’s become contentious,” Frank said of the charter school’s plans to expand beyond the school district where it started. “The AIMS school is a real point of pride, because it is one of the best schools in New Mexico.”

The City of Rio Rancho has paid UNM about $7 million from a tax fund voters approved for constructing higher education facilities. After some concern AIMS classes at UNM West could jeopardize access to those funds, the city council passed a resolution last month in support of the AIMS expansion.

Frank said some regents have told him they want to “push ahead” with AIMS, while others “are of no declared opinion.”

The views of the state’s Public Education Commission “are quite important because they are the authority on this,” Frank said.

Frank said the PEC “has been somewhat elusive in its declaration of authority here.” The PEC has tabled the matter at its last two meetings. It is on the commission’s agenda again Friday.

“So we’re waiting with baited breath to see what they have to say,” Frank said.

The PEC oversees charter schools like AIMS that are not authorized locally by school districts. The PEC approved an amendment from AIMS during a February 2013 meeting, in which the school proposed raising its enrollment cap and expanding to a new location.

At its April 23 meeting, the state Legislative Education Study Committee discussed the state law that allows a charter school to open an additional location. Attorneys involved disagree on whether the law requires an additional location to be in the same district where the school was originally chartered.

Expanding outside the district would require starting over, “with initial notice of intent, contract and performance framework negotiations, opportunity for public notice and comment, and a new, separate hearing before the chartering authority,” the LESC analyst’s memo said.

The advisory council meeting discussed briefly the request AIMS sent to state education chief Hanna Skandera on April 7. AIMS asked Skandera to waive the state law that may prohibit a charter school from opening an additional facility in another district.

Rio Rancho Public Schools Superintendent Sue Cleveland expressed her opposition to the AIMS expansion during the advisory council meeting. Among her concerns was the money the district would lose.

“The financial impact for us is the loss of a quarter million dollars,” Cleveland said. “It will probably force Rio Rancho schools into being a declining school district and we will therefore not probably be able to qualify in building (more classrooms) with matching funds.”

Earlier this year, the RRPS board decided not to build a satellite kindergarten campus near Maggie Cordova Elementary to ease overcrowding at several elementary schools, citing cost as a concern.

Catherine Cullen.

Catherine Cullen.

Catherine Cullen, who sits on the RRPS board and the UNM committee that met Thursday, told the committee that charter schools receive about double the amount per student from the state, compared to what the state distributes to school districts.

“The funding formulas here in New Mexico are very unfortunate,” Frank said.

State Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, legal counsel for AIMS, said after the Thursday committee meeting he was not sure whether the legal issues facing AIMS would be resolved at the PEC meeting or when Skandera grants or denies the waiver.

On Friday, the PEC will meet at 9 a.m. in Santa Fe and the full UNM Board of Regents will meet at 10 a.m. in Albuquerque.