(Editor’s note: This article has been updated to clarify which parts of the Dennis Chavez Elementary campus will be demolished.)

Plans to redraw the attendance boundaries for Belen Consolidated Schools’ seven elementary schools are moving forward.

After an analysis of the district’s current boundaries, it was found that most of the elementary schools were drastically under utilized — the physical buildings could house 20 to 40 percent more students than were actually enrolled.

To better use the existing space within the district’s schools, the Belen Board of Education voted 3-2 last August to approve a new boundary plan that would result in the eventual closure of H.T. Elementary.

At the Jan. 11 board meeting, BCS Superintendent Lawrence Sanchez told board members after a recent meeting with the Public Schools Capital Outlay Council, the district had gotten permission to combine $8 million in General Obligation funds for a rebuild of Jaramillo Elementary with a $3.2 million state systems grant for renovation and replacement of systems like HVAC and electrical at Dennis Chavez Elementary in Los Chavez.

That $11.2 million will be used to demolish some buildings on the DCE campus and rebuild a facility that is sized appropriately for the number of students in its new attendance area. According to the preliminary plans put out by the district, the 100 and 200 buildings, and two portables will be demolished. The gymnasium and 300 building will be left on the campus, and a new 21,873 square foot building will be constructed.

“Between now and April, we will develop a request for proposal and form a design committee and find an architect,” Sanchez said. “We had a hard time finding (an architect) for the smaller Dennis Chavez project, so we hope with a bigger project, that will be easier.”

The design work for the DCE project will take about a year, the superintendent said. The plan is to not have students return to the campus in the fall but instead relocate them to H.T. Jaramillo over the summer.

“We should have an architect and plans in place by then. First is the demolition of the buildings (at Dennis Chavez). Having students on campus while doing demolition and abatement is a safety issue,” Sanchez said. “We talked about the new attendance boundaries would go into effect in the fall of 2022. We feel this is the best step forward, to it all at once and not try to rebuild a campus with students there. That could cut down on the time it takes to rebuild.”

While the demolition is happening, the architect would move forward with plans for the new construction, which could begin immediately afterward on the empty campus.

If all goes as planned, students would return to the rebuilt DCE campus in August 2024, the superintendent said.

In an interview after the meeting, Sanchez said the driving force behind the changes is the need to increase the utilization of existing school sites.

“That’s what this is all based on. We’re doing what we need to to increase utilization and rather than doing it in stages; we’re doing it all at once,” he said. “We should have the new school attendance boundaries done in the next few months, then we can let people know where they are going for August 2022.”

Last summer, consultant Colleen Martinez did geotracking of all BCS students, mapping the number of students living within the attendance boundaries of each school.

“The next data count is in February, so we’ll have the most up-to-date numbers and she will run the geotracking again,” he said. “That will show the changes. For instance, a student now living in the La Promesa (Elementary) attendance area may now go to Gil Sanchez (Elementary).”

The superintendent said parents will be contacted about attendance changes and meetings scheduled.

“We want to do this now instead of in August just saying, ‘Here, you go to this school.’ We also need to redo the transportation maps,” he said. “This is all part of the bigger picture. These changes are going to have to happen.

“A big part of why this plan was approved was the utilization of the school sites. The state realized they were under utilized and we’ve been proactive in fixing this. We do have to move forward.”

Since 2019, the district has lost almost 200 students. Applications for state funds to replace any existing schools in the district would take utilization of space throughout the district into consideration, not just that of the individual school.

Currently, there are 281 students living in the Jaramillo Elementary 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.

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.

In other business, the board:

  • Discussed state-mandated bias training to all employees. Sanchez noted this was an unfunded mandate, with no approved plan provided by the state public education department.

“It was just ‘Good luck, let us know how it goes,’” he said.

Aubrey Tucker, the board’s vice president, said he was asked by a constituent why he started the bias training in the district.

“It’s a statewide initiative, as part of the Black Education Act,” said Tucker, the only Black board member. “It was an honest question, but I didn’t start this.”

The bias training is part of House Bill 43 and is required for other public bodies, not just school districts, Sanchez said.

  • Unanimously accepted a $5,000 grant from Nusenda for its Attendance for Success program, which provides incentives such as T-shirts, bicycles and gift cards for outstanding student attendance.
  • Unanimously approved a letter of support for a wireless broadband project in Socorro County. The project will serve students at La Promesa Elementary in northern Socorro County.
  • Unanimously approved a $2,500 Walmart Community Grant for the district’s special needs students.
  • Unanimously approved an expenditure of $281,377 for upgrades to the Belen High School intercom system.
  • Reorganized for the coming year. The board president is Jim Danner, vice president is Aubrey Tucker and secretary is Max Cordova.
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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.