By Marlena Hartz: CNJ staff writer
Budget concerns and community emotions are heavy on the minds of school board members Monday at the end of the first round of community meetings designed to collect feedback on the proposed consolidation of three Clovis elementary schools.
Clovis Municipal Schools Superintendent Rhonda Seidenwurm proposed the school board close Ranchvale Elementary; Barry Elementary would then be the “flagship school for the military,” Seidenwurm said at Tuesday’s school board meeting. The superintendent has also asked board members to merge Lincoln-Jackson Arts Academy with Bella Vista Elementary.
If board members approve the proposals, the district could save $500,000 and stave off the effects of a projected $1.7 million deficit, according to an administration report.
However, the first round of meetings highlighted community disapproval of the proposals.
“The parents reacted how I expected they would. I understand a lot of personal emotions are involved and that’s what I saw exhibited,” said school board member Lora Harlan, who attended the first round of meetings at Ranchvale and Lincoln-Jackson.
School board members said they are still in the process of accumulating information about the proposals at administration and community levels. A final decision will be made in November or December, members said.
“I knew this would be a gut-wrenching decision,” school board member Max Best said. “This thing is all about finances. Otherwise why would we do this — put families through these issues?” said the attorney Tuesday from his office.
The district finance crunch isn’t a new problem, but it is one school officials say should be addressed immediately. It began in the summer of 2004 when the state implemented the three-tiered licensure system, which awards pay increases to teachers based on their education level, years of experience, and compliance with state teaching standards.
The system also guarantees first-year teachers in New Mexico a minimum salary of at least $30,000 — about $4,000 more than they were previously paid, said Jim McDaniel, district assistant superintendent of personnel.
“We are paying a lot more money for teachers, but we were getting priced out of business. This is a maneuver to encourage teachers to come here,” McDaniel said.
The state invested $196 million to improve teachers’ salaries under the term of Gov. Bill Richardson, bringing New Mexico from 46th to 41st in the nation.
McDaniel said one problem is that the No Child Left Behind Act salary mandate is unfunded. Though the state offered districts a one-time only reprieve this year, they must find ways to maintain the three-tiered system without state help by next year, McDaniel said.
That’s a challenge for the school board members.
“We don’t want to cut any of our programs. We need alternatives that will make us more fiscally responsible and not impede student achievement,” Harlan said.
However, the words of upset community members loom large.
“The financial issues are a big, big consideration but, on the other hand, you are changing people’s lives,” said Best, who said he was once a student at a small school similar to those slated for consolidation.
“There is a special rural environment at Ranchvale and a special history with Lincoln-Jackson. I don’t think you can deny that.”
“Basically (a change) is being forced upon us,” Best said.
Yet to meet an official vote, the proposals are still fluid, said school officials and board members.
“I think the board needs to look at as many options as we can,” said vice president of the school board Mark Lansford.