BELEN — With a shrinking student population, Belen Consolidated Schools finds itself in the position of having to consider the closure of an elementary school in the coming years.
At the Tuesday, July 13, meeting of the Belen Board of Education, BCS Superintendent Lawrence Sanchez and consultant Colleen Martinez laid out two plans to redraw attendance boundaries for the district’s elementary schools. Both options would close Jaramillo Elementary School, which serves kindergarten through third grade students.
“This is not something that’s going to happen overnight though,” said Sanchez. “If there are no delays, if everything goes through perfectly — and when does that ever happen — it will be August of 2023 at the very earliest before any of these moves happen.”
The board will hold a workshop to discuss the attendance boundary changes and possible closure of Jaramilllo at 4 p.m., Monday, July 19. The meeting will be on the district’s YouTube channel and members of the public will be able to submit comments and questions during the meeting.
While the school is in line for a complete rebuild since it is ranked in the top 10 projects by the state’s Public Schools Finance Authority, Sanchez said because the district as a whole is overbuilt — having 20 to 40 percent fewer students at each school than possible — the state might turn down the district’s request for money to rebuild the school.
A $10 million general obligation bond was approved by district voters in November 2019, of which about $8 million was earmarked for the rebuild of Jaramillo. That would have covered the district’s portion of the then estimated $17-$19 million total for the project. The expectation was the PSFA would provide the remainder of the money.
“In the original plan, we were looking at 350 students (at Jaramillo),” the superintendent said. “Enrollment continues to drop. One of the things PSFA and the Public School Capital Outlay Council has told us is basically, we’ve built these buildings that we are not completely utilizing. ‘If you’re not using them, why are we going to build you another one?’ Just because we qualify doesn’t mean they are going to give us the money.”
Right now, there are 281 students living in the Jaramillo attendance zone while the campus has room for 443 students — a usage rate of 63.4 percent of the available capacity.
The school’s 2020-2021 enrollment of 250 students decreases the usage to 56.4 percent.
Jaramillo isn’t alone in its under-utilization. Central Elementary School, the “partner” school to Jaramillo which serves the fourth through sixth grades, has 215 students living in its attendance area and a capacity for 264 students. At 81.4 percent, it’s the highest utilized elementary school in the district, and still under the 90 to 95 percent preferred capacity of public schools as outlined by the PSFA. Enrollment at Central for the 2020-21 school year was 215 students.
Dennis Chavez Elementary has the lowest utilization rate. There are 235 students in the attendance area for DCE, which can accommodate up to 407 students, a 57.7 use of capacity. There were 269 students enrolled at Dennis Chavez last year, pushing it’s capacity usage up to 66.1 percent.
To increase the usage rates of existing schools, Martinez, who serves as a liaison between the district and PSFA, compiled the student numbers for each school to make recommendations.
“Her first observation when she started was ‘you have too many buildings,’” Sanchez said. “She helps identify trends so we can make data-based decisions.”
The two most feasible options to redraw attendance zones and increase school capacity usage district wide both lead to the closure of Jaramillo, he said.
“One, 1-C, turns Central into a K-6 school. 2-D creates the same partnership that exists between Jaramillo and Central now and transfers (the K-3 students) to Rio Grande Elementary,” Sanchez said.
Turning Central into a K-6 school would be the more expensive option, since renovations to the first floor would be needed to make the space appropriate for the younger students.
“None of this is written in stone; I don’t get to decide if we rebuild” he said. “This is a board decision.”
If it’s decided to close Jaramillo, by no means would the campus be completely torn down. Sanchez said the district will keep all usable parts intact.
“The gym is fairly new and is a great resource for the community. Tearing that down would be dumb,” he said. “The main building that everyone finds so exciting, and I love that part too, we can repurpose. We will be able to use it for something else that would benefit students.”
Although the option to close Jaramillo is on the table, there’s nothing stopping the district from keeping things as they are and building a new Jaramillo school.
“If we want the state’s help though, something will have to change,” he said.
One concern of building a new school with only district funds is that other projects and maintenance will have to be put on hold or only partially done in order to save for the expense.
“If we are saving the money to build, it’s going to be hard to support our existing buildings. And if no one has figured it out, our schools are not that new,” Sanchez said. “I understand the emotional attachment (to Jaramillo) but logically, I don’t see the need to neglect our other buildings at the expense of a new one. It’s not fair to our students.”
Also at play is a $3.2 million systems grant awarded to BCS by the state for renovation and replacement of systems like HVAC and electrical at Dennis Chavez Elementary.
Since DCE is so overbuilt for its student population, in addition to considering the closure of Jaramillo, the board may tear down several buildings at the Dennis Chavez campus — the 100 and 200 buildings, as well as the two portable buildings — and replace them with a new, smaller building.
Sanchez said since the district has been awarded the money, some preliminary planning has been done at DCE, but with the possibility of buildings being torn down, fixing systems in them would be a waste of money.
Keeping attendance boundaries as they are and opting to save for and build Jaramillo out of its own pocket doesn’t mean the district won’t end up in this same position down the road.
Any school PSFA is asked to help fund may encounter the same road blocks, since the state wants schools to be at 90 to 95 percent capacity use ideally.
As a whole, elementary school enrollment in BCS has declined by 27 percent since the 2011-12 school year, according to Martinez’ presentation to the board Tuesday, and enrollment district wide is down 21.1 percent. The declines are due to a decline in birth rates in Valencia County and the aging population.
“PSFA and the Public School Capital Outlay Council are really hammering districts on matching enrollments to school facilities,” Martinez said. “When you have excess capacity at all of your other schools, the need for a new school is questioned.
“You have to look at maintenance and availability of funds, and making sure all schools are up to par. With low utilization rates, it’s hard to support a new facility. Something needs to give.”
The board of education will consider the two plans to redraw attendance boundaries and possibly close Jaramillo at its July 27 meeting.
BCS Elementary School Attendance Zone Options
Julia M. Dendinger began working at the VCNB in 2006. She covers Valencia County government, Belen Consolidated Schools and the village of Bosque Farms. She is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists Rio Grande chapter’s board of directors.