It was data versus emotion at a Monday evening workshop to discuss the possible closure of a Belen elementary school.
With a shrinking student population, Belen Consolidated Schools finds itself having to consider the closure of H.T. Jaramillo Elementary School in the near future in order to be able to ask for financial help from the state to build new schools down the road.
At the July 13 Belen Board of Education meeting, BCS Superintendent Lawrence Sanchez and consultant Colleen Martinez laid out two plans to redraw attendance boundaries for the district’s elementary schools, both of which would close the 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.”
While Jaramillo is in line for a complete rebuild, ranked at No. 5 by the state 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 to rebuild H.T. Jaramillo Elementary for a current estimated total of $25 to $30 million. The expectation was PSFA would provide the remainder of the money.
“In the original plan, we were looking at 350 students (at Jaramillo),” the superintendent said. “Enrollment continued to drop. One of the things PSFA and the Public School Capital Outlay Council have told us is basically, we’ve built these buildings that we are not completely utilizing. Just because we qualify doesn’t mean they are going to give us the money.”
Since the bond passed in 2019, Martinez said the district has lost almost 200 students. Once the utilization numbers are presented to PSFA and the capital outlay committee, BCS Assistant Superintendent of Finance Annette Torrez said if a rebuild is authorized, the funding will most likely be reduced to construct a smaller facility.
“From what I understand, it was funded at 350 students and about 47,000 square feet,” Torrez said. “PSCOC will reduce that.”
Applications for state funds to build any new school in the district would take the utilization of space throughout the district into consideration, she said.
“This will all be based on the utilization of other spaces,” said Sanchez. “A new school could be built for 250 students, but the state is going to say ‘Why are you building for 250 when you can move them?’”
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 2020-21 enrollment numbers of 250 students decreases the usage to 56.4 percent.
During the workshop, former board member Lisa Chavez said she’d heard a lot about data driven decisions, but she wanted to talk about communities and commitments.
“The decision to close Jaramillo has a huge impact not just on the school community but on the community of Belen,” Chavez said.
Saying people in the community were “pretty shocked” at the discussion about closing the school, Chavez said there was a lack of public discussion.
“It sounds like many options were discussed but the public hasn’t had a lot of input,” she said. “They need multiple opportunities to weigh in.”
When she was on the board, Chavez said rebuilding Jaramillo was a priority when she went to the community to fight for passage of the 2019 bond.
“Now a year and a half later, we’re talking about closing it,” she said. “You need to go out to the public because this hurts the integrity of the board.”
Board member Larry Lindberg and board president Jim Danner both expressed reservations at walking back the promise to voters to build a new school.
“We made a promise. We said we would rebuild Jaramillo with some of that (bond) money,” Lindberg said. “That’s a real struggle for me.”
Danner said he wanted Jaramillo built and would continue to fight for that option.
“Talking to PSFA, the way the district is now, it cannot be built,” Danner said. “I’m not doubting the data. It’s not a data problem. It’s an emotional problem. This is an elementary school in the heart of Belen. It is a community thing. I understand what you’re all saying. Does that mean you’re selling me? No.”
Rance Hall, the PE teacher at Jaramillo for the last eight years, also wanted more public input, suggesting the board exercise its authority to appoint an ad hoc committee that could “look at all the data and report back to the board with recommendations. I feel this would allow for more stakeholders — site administrators and employees, parents, local business leaders — to be involved.”
Aubrey Tucker, the board vice president, said he might come off as cold-hearted, but he had to look at the data being presented and consider the triple Ds — data driven decisions.
“We’ve got to treat (the district) like the $30 million entity it is. We are told by the data schools are not up to capacity. That’s a problem. We’re told our boundaries don’t fulfill needs of our constituency and that’s a problem,” Tucker said.
“It’s no secret my decision making process is if we have the means to make our schools more efficient by getting the number of students we’re supposed to have and by not putting a tax burden on people for a school we don’t need, we have to make the hard decisions.”
Jaramillo isn’t alone in its under-utilization. Central Elementary School, which serves 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 but still below the state’s desired 90-95 percent occupancy. Enrollment 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, which can accommodate up to 407 students, a 57.7 use of capacity. There were 269 students enrolled last year, pushing it’s capacity usage up to 66.1 percent.
The two most feasible options to redraw attendance zones and increase school capacity usage district wide both lead to the closure of Jaramillo.
One plan, 1-C, turns Central into a K-6 school. Plan 2-D creates the same partnership that exists between Jaramillo and Central now, and transfers the K-3 students to Rio Grande and Dennis Chavez elementaries.
To turn 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.
When Central was built, a post-tension slab was used for the foundation. Any renovations that cut into the slab could only be done after the slab was x-rayed to locate the tension wires, Sanchez said, an additional cost to the currently unknown price.
If it’s decided to close Jaramillo, the campus wouldn’t be completely torn down, Sanchez said.
“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 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 technically 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,” Sanchez said.
One concern of building a new school with only district funds is 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.”
Keeping attendance boundaries as they are and opting to save 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 BCS school PSFA is asked to help fund may encounter the same road blocks, since the state wants schools to ideally be at 90 to 95 percent capacity.
As a whole, elementary school enrollment has declined by 27 percent since the 2011-12 school year, according to Martinez’ presentation to the board, 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.
Martinez said projections of future enrollment in the district included the two new subdivisions being built in Belen, which could possibly result in 84 to 102 new students for BCS. If those numbers materialize, enrollment would drop by 3.1 percent district wide, rather than the 8.2 percent projected without those new students.
“PSFA and the Public School Capital Outlay Council are really hammering districts on matching enrollments to school facilities,” Martinez. “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.”
If Jaramillo is closed, it will be a few years down the road, Sanchez said, so teachers, administrators and staff currently working at the school won’t be affected.
“If there is a closure, at that time teachers and the principal would be reassigned,” the superintendent said. “They would not lose their jobs. We would be moving kids and we’re not going to increase class sizes. We’re going to need teachers.”
Martinez said eight to 10 different attendance zone options were considered and evaluated, but the numbers didn’t work in most scenarios.
“Due to student concentration locations, it makes it difficult to get everything to work,” she said.
During Monday’s workshop, Martinez presented a variety of statistics in regards to the district’s declining student population. Between 2010 and 2019, the birth rate in Valencia County as a whole declined 17.8 percent, she said. In 2010, 947 children were born in Valencia County and only 791 in 2019.
“Regardless if you live in Belen and come to Albuquerque to have a baby, the moment you register your address, and show you live in Valencia County, that birth counts towards Valencia County, not Bernalillo County or Albuquerque,” she said. “Just as your enrollment has gone down based on birth rate, so has Los Lunas’.”
In 2015, of the 838 children born in the county, 220 enrolled in Belen Schools and 484 in Los Lunas Schools.
About 18 percent of the county’s population is 65 years and older, and the average age of men in Belen is 38.6 and women is 38.2 years old. County-wide, the average age of men is 41 and women 36.8.
Martinez looked back to the 1998-99 school year and BCS had a total enrollment of 4,870 students, 2,812 of those were pre-kindergarten through sixth grade. In the last 10 years, student enrollment has decreased 853 students, she said, and there are 1,839 pre-k through sixth-grade students this school year.
The elementary schools in BCS have a combined 371,208 square feet, but ideally should only have 253,998 square feet to serve the student population, Martinez said.
That extra 117,210 square feet — which increases to 132,954 if portable buildings are counted — has to be heated and cooled and maintained along with the rest of the facilities.
“You pay operational costs on all of the square footage,” she said. “What you have over is fairly significant. It’s the size of a middle school.”
The superintendent said maintenance costs have risen from $6 to $7 per square foot to closer to $10.
“If you multiply that by 117,210 square feet and you’re into the millions,” Sanchez said.
Antonio Sedillo, the district’s maintenance supervisor, said there is a lot of deferred maintenance at H.T. Jaramillo Elementary, and its systems are in an extreme rate of decline, which is why it was ranked highly for replacement by the state. He estimated utilities for the school were probably 20 to 30 percent higher than other schools.
Torrez said last year, Jaramillo, by far, had the highest utility costs at about $173,000; all other elementary schools averaged about $65,000 in utility costs.
The board of education will consider the two plans to redraw attendance boundaries and possibly close Jaramillo at its Tuesday, 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.