On a 3-2 vote, the Belen Board of Education approved redrawing the elementary school attendance boundaries for the district Tuesday night, which will lead to the eventual closure of H.T. Jaramillo Elementary.
Board President Jim Danner and board member Larry Lindberg voted against the boundary changes, while Board Vice President Aubrey Tucker, Secretary Max Cordova and member Larry Garley voted in favor.
“I have an emotional attachment to that school and I just could not bring myself to vote to eliminate it,” Lindberg said, expressing a fondness he holds for H.T. Jaramillo Elementary since he attended the school in the 1950s. “With all the other things that I said in my heart, I had to go with my heart.”
Danner, who also attended Jaramillo in the 1950s, said that although two members voted against the measure, they still voted in favor as a board, advocating for them to move forward together.
“We brought in experts telling us exactly what’s happening … it’s still not going to sustain us,” Cordova said. “So, we need to make a move. It’s a hard move. And again, I cannot see that it’s going to destroy our community. I can’t see it that way.”
Belen Consolidated Schools Superintendent Lawrence Sanchez said the closure of the school wouldn’t happen for at least two years, while the district redraws the boundaries.
Once Jaramillo closes, its kindergarten through third-grade population will shift to Rio Grande Elementary, which is currently a K-6 school. Rio Grande will transition to a K-3 campus and fourth- through sixth-graders will go to Central Elementary in a sister-school relationship, like the current one between Jaramillo and Central.
While Jaramillo was in line for a complete rebuild, ranked at No. 5 by the New Mexico Public Schools Finance Authority, Sanchez said because the district, as a whole, is overbuilt — having more than 117,000 square feet of unused space among its elementary campuses — the state would most likely turn down the district’s request for money to rebuild the school. The initial plan for a new Jaramillo school was for 350 students, but enrollment has 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,” Sanchez said. “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 space. The school’s 2020-21 enrollment numbers of 250 students decreased the usage to 56.4 percent.
A $10 million general obligation bond was approved by district voters in November 2019, of which about $8 million was earmarked to build a replacement for Jaramillo Elementary. The current estimated cost for the project is $25 to $30 million. The expectation was PSFA would provide the remainder of the money.
Since 2019, the district has lost almost 200 students. Applications for state funds to replace any of the existing schools in the district would take utilization of space throughout the district into consideration, not just that of the individual school.
The board of education has been considering two plans to redraw boundaries for the last month — one that would convert Central into a K-6 school and the second that transfers students to RGE, making it the sister school to Central.
However, the needed renovations at Central to accommodate K-3 students would cost about $1.5 million, which would have to be paid entirely by the district.
“The state wouldn’t help us with that project,” Sanchez said.
As a whole, elementary school enrollment has declined by 27 percent since the 2011-12 school year and enrollment district wide is down 21.1 percent. The decrease in student enrollment is due to a decline in birth rates in Valencia County and the aging population.
Projections of future enrollment in the district include the two new subdivisions being built in Belen, which could possibly result in 84 to 102 new students for BCS, Dennis Chavez Elementary specifically. If those numbers materialize, enrollment would decrease by 3.1 percent district wide, rather than the 8.2 percent projected without those new students.
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.