SANTA FE, N.M. — A group of community members in El Rito plan to bring their concerns over the direction of Northern New Mexico College to the highest level of state government now that the college has announced it is relocating programs from its original site in El Rito to its main campus in Española.
Monday night, after NNMC announced its plans, which also include a 8.9 percent tuition hike to help close a $900,000 budget gap, the group met to discuss what they might do to keep the El Rito campus vibrant.
“We came up with a three-pronged course of action, not only to deal with the issues at El Rito, but also with other problems involving the college,” said El Rito resident Jake Arnold.
Arnold said the plan is to request meetings with the governor or her staff about alleged mismanagement of the college by administrators; with the state auditor regarding the college’s finances, use of grant money and conflicts of interest; and with the attorney general’s office about legal issues concerning the constitutionally established state educational institution.
“We’re not closing down the El Rito campus,” Ricky Serna, vice president for advancement at NNMC, said in addressing the constitutionality of moving programs away from El Rito. “Our commitment is strong in El Rito.”
Serna said the campus will still be used to host conferences, academic retreats, residential summer programs and public gatherings. He said the college spends “upwards of $400,000” annually for maintenance and security at the campus, the original home of the Spanish American Normal School, founded in 1909, that over the past century evolved into Northern’s current set-up, with Española as its main campus.
The state constitution lists the college, referred to as “the northern New Mexico state school,” as one of 10 state educational institutions and identifies El Rito as the college’s seat.
Serna noted that none of the programs held at the El Rito campus, including a Spanish colonial furniture class, were credit programs. He added that programs at the campus averaged about 30 students per semester and that the thought is enrollment could increase for those programs if they were moved to Española.
But Arnold, a former member of the El Rito campus’ planning committee, said that, in recent years, the college administration has actively tried to separate itself from El Rito.
“Shutting down the El Rito campus has been the secret plan for a while,” he said. “They need to stop the charade and pretending that they want anything to do with El Rito.”
Arnold said the campus would be better off under the umbrella of another state college, such as New Mexico Highlands, New Mexico State or the University of New Mexico. That could be done through a constitutional amendment that would shift the assets in El Rito from NNMC to one of the other schools, he said.
“I think any one of those three state universities would welcome having a site here,” he said.
Another suggestion is to dissolve the college entirely and make it a part of one of the other universities, keeping its programs and faculty in place.
“It has so many management problems, so many financial problems, we don’t think the college is capable of resolving those problems itself,” he said.
NNMC has been struggling financially for years. Soon after President Nancy “Rusty” Barceló came aboard in 2010, it came to light the college was facing a $5 million deficit. The college fell years behind on audits and, earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Education identified NNMC as needing additional financial oversight.
Last year, the state Board of Finance declined to act on the college’s proposal for financing a dormitory project amid concerns over the college’s troubled finances. NNMC had asked the board to approve revenue bonds that would have provided up to $16 million, $13.3 million of which would have paid for the dormitory project.
“I think we need more time in viewing the stability of the institution before there’s continued investment,” Gov. Susana Martinez said last July. “There has to be some confidence on the part of us to turn around and say this is worth the investment right now.”
Also last year, both the student senate and the faculty delivered “no confidence” votes against administration. Around that time, New Mexico Higher Education Department Cabinet Secretary Jose Garcia said his department had received “an unusually high number” of complaints against the college.
Most recently, regent Donald Martinez resigned amid pressure from Board President Chavo Garcia, who accused him of sending emails that revealed confidential information and included statements about former regent Michael Branch she considered slanderous.
NNMC has also been named in several lawsuits brought by former employees, charging retaliation.
“It’s an embarrassment,” Arnold said. “With all this pending litigation, the college is going broke and the lawyers are getting all the money.”
Serna said the college was emerging from its financial crisis. The college is now caught up on its audits, has cleaned up its books and is operating in a fiscally responsible manner, he said.
The tuition increase is not unusual and is the college’s first in three years, he said. It’s estimated that the increase would provide an additional $300,000 in revenue.
Asked to respond to the criticism college administration has faced in recent years, Serna said, “I guess the concerns would be warranted if the trend of enrollment declines and budget cuts weren’t happening across the state. I think you can see, and most others are seeing, that this is a part of a reduction in funding to higher education, and all institutions are dealing with declines and making changes.”
Serna said NNMC is working to increase enrollment, which he said stands at about 1,200 students.
The college used to operate as a two-year school. It wasn’t until 2005 that it received authority to offer four-year degree programs. It now offers 13 bachelor’s degree programs and has expanded post-baccalaureate opportunities through partnerships with other schools.
Earlier this year, the college attempted to re-brand itself by declaring itself a university. Barceló said at the time the name change would reduce confusion between the school’s component colleges and the institution as a whole. She added that it would help Northern to be regarded with equal status as other state institutions, such as Western New Mexico and New Mexico Highlands.
But the college had to backtrack when state legislators pointed out the college regents couldn’t arbitrarily take action to change the name. That authority lies with the Legislature.