LOS CHAVEZA Belen elementary school has sat empty for almost two years now as the Belen Consolidated Schools district and state work through the details of demolition and eventual rebuild of the campus. 

BCS Superintendent Lawrence Sanchez said getting to the rebuild of Dennis Chavez Elementary in Los Chavez has been a long process with challenges along the way. 

News-Bulletin file photo
The Dennis Chavez Elementary campus has been empty since beginning of the 2022-23 school year.

“I’d say those have to do with the fact that we are co-owners of the property with the state,” Sanchez said. “This is not only a big investment for the district but for the state. The goal is to have buildings constructed that will last 30 or 40 years, and that takes time.” 

DCE’s students and staff were relocated to the H.T. Jaramillo Elementary campus in Belen at the beginning of the 2022-23 school year in anticipation of the rebuild beginning in the spring of 2023.  

Jaramillo was officially closed as a school site for BCS at the end of the 2021-22 school year after the district had to redraw attendance boundaries to account for dropping enrollment. In order to continue receiving state funds to rebuild school sites, the district had to “right size” its elementary campuses to make use of unused space. 

The superintendent said the last utility line on the DCE campus — a data line that serves Logsdon Hall, an administrative building just north of the campus — was located and moved earlier this month. 

“With older buildings, and this has been my experience in Belen Schools, is that they were built in phases and there aren’t always good plans indicating where the utilities are, especially if they’re underground,” he said. “We had to do further surveys to find all of them” 

Now the district is working with the New Mexico Public Schools Finance Authority to identify the contractors for the demolition, which is expected to begin in May.  

Sanchez said the district has received quotes for the demolition, which will be brought to the Belen Board of Education at its April 23 meeting for consideration.. 

In late 2022, the district and PSFA went through three iterations of the architectural contract before the agency approved an agreement with Albuquerque-based architectural firm Huit-Zollars. 

The finance authority, as well as other state public education departments, reviews all the documents and plans associated with the project “with a fine-tooth comb,” Sanchez said, to make sure standards are met.  

“They don’t want to waste taxpayer’s money and neither do we. If I was personally custom building a house, if nobody else likes it, who cares? With a school, there are adequacy standards we have to meet, and that takes time,” he said.  

The superintendent said he has heard the criticism that the district should have left students at DCE until it was time to start demolition, but that wasn’t a prudent financial move. 

“If we had done that, we would have had to maintain Jaramillo while we were waiting for the move, using tax dollars to keep a facility up-to-date for future occupation,” he said. “We don’t have to do that at DCE. It’s going to be a full demo, except for the gym.” 

The initial plans for the rebuild of the Dennis Chavez campus included keeping the gymnasium as well as the north wing, which was going to be remodeled “to adequacy,” the superintendent said.  

However, upon a closer inspection of the building, it was found the roof trusses ran north to south along the long axis of the building, instead of east to west, which is the shorter span.  

“With that situation the cost to remodel was almost as great as it was to rebuild” the superintendent said. “The cut-off point (for PSFA) is about 70 percent (of the rebuild cost). That was a bit of a hiccup.”  

Although there have been delays, work has continued on architectural plans and the design of the new campus.  

“We have been working with the architect and the planning committee. Everything has to be vetted before it can be finalized,” Sanchez said. “If there is going to be a mistake or something needs to change, now is the time. We don’t want to be building and have to make changes. Taking our time during the planning stage is going to be a good use of taxpayer dollars.” 

The original goal for a ground breaking was June of this year, and the superintendent remains hopeful the project will kick off close to that. 

“… we should be able to break ground over the summer,” he said. “The proposed completion date is December 2025 into January 2026. If it does go out a little longer, that’s OK. We want to be (in the new school) by August 2026, and I don’t set these dates. The state sets the dates.” 

The district will be responsible for 48 percent of the total cost of the rebuild of the campus. NMPED has not yet finalized the total cost, Sanchez said.  

The superintendent did say the original cost of the project was estimated to be about $35 million, but he now expects it to be higher due to rising construction prices. 

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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.