LOS CHAVEZ–Even though students at Dennis Chavez Elementary have spent the first half of this year at the old H.T. Jaramillo Elementary campus in Belen, the existing DCE campus in Los Chavez on N.M. 314 looks much the same as always.
“It’s basically hurry up and wait,” said Belen Consolidated Schools Superintendent Lawrence Sanchez. “You have to remember, the state is our partner in this and they have a big say. They finally approved the architectural contract.”
The decision to rebuild about half of the DCE campus was due to the overall under use of space across the district.
While Jaramillo Elementary 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.
With dropping enrollment, the board of education approved attendance boundaries that eliminated HTJ as a school site and pushed those students onto other campuses.
With Jaramillo’s closure, 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, such as the current one between Jaramillo and Central.
By not rebuilding Jaramillo, at a cost which has ballooned to $25 to $30 million that the district would be expected to pay for fully, bond funds and system improvement grants were able to shift to a partial rebuild of the Dennis Chavez Elementary campus.
After the holidays, the superintendant said there would be a kickoff meeting held now that the New Mexico Public Schools Finance Authority has signed off on the architectural contract.
“We went through three iterations before the contract met the requirements of PFSA,” he said. “Once we are able to meet with the architects, things should be moving quicker.”
The hope is to begin with asbestos clean up inside the building.
“When you knock down a building, you get a lot of floor tile and ceiling tiles that turn to dust, and that has to be abated,” Sanchez said. “That would be the first piece of activity the public will see then once that’s done, we’ll start demolition.”
The asbestos clean-up time line is somewhat fluid, he said, since the amount of asbestos in the buildings coming down is unknown. The plan is to take down the 100 and 200 buildings, as well as the two portable buildings, and replace them with a new, smaller building.
“We want to make sure everyone is on the same page and that takes some time,” Sanchez said. “This is an expensive project and we all want to be careful how the money is spent and make sure it’s discussed in the contract so there are no hidden surprises.”
Construction of the new buildings at the DCE campus is slated for the spring of 2023, once demolition is finished.
Gas line work continues at Belen High School
Repairs of underground gas leaks at Belen High School that started in November are still ongoing.
Sanchez said after several attempts to repair the old lines, the decision was made to run new lines throughout campus, getting facilities back online in phases.
“The first phase was running new lines to the majority of the buildings. Work has been ongoing to get the cafeteria back, the auditorium and other classrooms,” he said. “As the work has been completed, it has to be inspected to make sure everything is safe and then they move on to the next section.”
BHS students were moved to remote learning briefly, but brought back to campus the week before Thanksgiving. Sanchez said there was concern about bringing students back on campus, but the repair company TLC has assured the district there’s no danger.
“Plus, the state doesn’t allow us to say ‘we’re going remove.’ Once we got gas back to the main building, the reason to not have kids in class was removed. That’s one of the reasons we went back before (Thanksgiving) break.”
During the summer, New Mexico Public Secretary of Education Kurt Steinhaus let districts statewide know they needed a “good reason” to go full remove, Sanchez said, otherwise students would have to make up the remote days.
“With the help of TLC and hard work by our maintenance department, we have been able to make adjustments. Construction areas are blocked off and we are working around what we need to do,” he said.
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.