A second middle school may be in the works for the Belen School District.

The Valley Improvement Association told the Belen Board of Education Tuesday it would donate 31 acres of land east of La Merced Elementary School in Rio Communities for the school.

Superintendent Don Duran said that a previous board had begun exploring the idea of a second middle school and had secured bond money for it, but had decided instead to remodel the present school.

Board members indicated they believe the population of the present middle school has grown too large. Board President Julian Luna said the need is to “ensure a good ratio of teachers to students.”

Board Member Al Wisneski agreed. “It’s important we’re talking about having a school on that side of the river,” he said, adding that it would be better to have 400 to 500 students in each mid-school rather than the present 800.

Board Member Paul Trujillo said housing “800 students … at an age of 13 or 14 years of age is a very difficult situation” and predicted, at a smaller school, they’d “make tremendous progress academically.”

And Luna noted that the fact that the land would be donated would give the district that much more money to spend on the structure, since it didn’t have to pay for acreage.

The VIA will give the land, according to a letter, as long as the district begins constructing the school by the end of 2004 and if voters approve a bond issue for the facility in February, 2003. VIA would also donate a platted walkway leading directly from the Manzano Expressway.

Luna said, after the meeting, that the board will consider how the project can be funded.

Trujillo estimated construction might cost $8 million to $9 million

The board then heard a presentation by architect James Lynch about renovations at the present middle school. The $1.6 million project will be completed in three phases, starting with renovations and additions at the gym.

Bids would be taken for the gym work in October and construction would begin in December.

There would be extensive remodeling, including a new entry, classrooms, American Disabilities Act upgrading, replacement of bleachers and additional windows to let more light in, Lynch said.

Later, there would be landscaping and building renovations at the main campus.

Meanwhile, a public hearing on board voting-district boundaries was also held. “The law requires redistricting after every census to make sure there are equal districts in terms of population,” said Robert Don Lohbeck of Information Strategies, who is helping draw the boundaries.

The primary change must be to Districts 2 and 3. “Currently, … there are too many people in District 3 and too few in District 2,” Lohbach said. Trujillo represents District 2 while Wisneski was elected in District 3.

“The other three districts aren’t changing too much,” Lohbeck said. They cover more of “the core areas in town, which are more densely populated.”

Trujillo said that, if a mobile home park in Wisneski’s district is moved to his, the people there wouldn’t be served as well. Wisneski agreed.

Many of the residents in that park are retired, and they have more in common with voters in Wisneski’s district, which includes Rio Communities, a woman in the audience said.

What happens if none of the proposed plans are right, board members asked.

Lohbach said “under the law, you have to — there’s a state statute” and a lawsuit could be filed against the district on the basis of the “one-person-one vote” concept. If population is uneven in the districts, some people’s votes would thus count more than others’.

He said he is working for minimal changes, which should affect only about 600 people.

In the end, the board asked that further options be studied before action is taken.

In other action, the board:

  • Received two flags for the district’s new administration building from the Woodmen of the World during a formal presentation.
  • Heard teacher Wreatha Sturgill of Belen High School comment about a proposed sick leave policy change that would require employees who took off both a Monday and a Friday or days around a holiday to present a doctor’s excuse. She said the policy doesn’t treat teachers as professionals.

She urged the board “not to punish the whole class for the bad behavior of a few” and that instead they could “dock the habitual” abusers of the sick leave policy.

“You’ve brought up good issues,” Luna told Sturgill and other audience members. “I want to see some statistics” about absenteeism.

“We’re going to do everything we can to be as pro-employee as possible, but look at the issues out there,” he said.

“We’re not trying to hurt the majority of the staff,” said Board Member Lola Quintana.

Trujillo said he would like to see staff members participate more in formulating the policy.

The board gave a second reading to the policy but did not take any action, asking that further input be obtained from employees. The board will reconsider the policy on June 25.

An audience member noted that a state auditor caught the fact that the school district did not have such a policy and recommended one be written.

  • Heard a report from the Future Farmers of America, which included a computer-generated production with photos and lists of accomplishments.
  • Learned from Principal Julie Romero Benavidez that her school has changed its name to Jaramillo Community School and talked about a Balanced Literacy Program in which the community will be invited to the school. About 100 parents will be trained in reading skills and others are involved in a parent advisory group.

There are before- and after-school tutoring programs and 80 of the 85 students involved showed impressive gains in reading.

  • Received information about the Intel Teach to the Future project from teacher Patsy Castillo about training being given about using computers in the classroom.
  • Heard from Duran that next year’s student behavior handbook will be about the same as last year’s, except for a change in information about immunization and absences.
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