Eagle Ridge Middle School Principal Catherine Rodriguez greeted returning sixth-graders in costume Monday. Courtesy photo.

Despite a lower first-day turnout than expected and too many near-empty buses, hybrid-learning sixth-graders and high school seniors on Monday were back in the classrooms for the first time since last March.
Superintendent Sue Cleveland told Rio Rancho Public Schools Board of Education members at their Feb. 22 meeting that only about 100 students showed up for class at the high schools and 90 were at the middle schools. She said “a handful of high school students rode the bus.”
With the district always short-funded for transportation, this could be problematic: Whether there are two students, 20 students or, as in pre-pandemic times, 60 or so students on a bus, the wear and tear, gas to fill the tank and money to pay for a driver remain the same.
“(That’s a) lot of costs for very few students,” Cleveland noted.
Although they won’t be back in a classroom, board members expect to meet in-person at their April 12 meeting.
Board President Amanda Galbraith said some “technical issues,” including feedback, needed to be worked out, and there are still questions about how many members of the public will be allowed to attend. The district must also decide how to continue to live stream the meetings, as has been done for nearly a year, on YouTube.
There was no discussion about when more secondary grades will return to the classrooms, but quite a bit of talk on the two calendars approved by the board for the 2021-22 school year.
One consists of a 94-day first semester and a 92-day second semester, with six days of professional development, for a total of 192 school days. The other was a standard 182-day calendar, with equal 88-day semesters, plus six days for professional development.
Neither had the traditional “snow days” allocated, with the district planning to handle inclement-weather days with all-virtual learning.
Peggy Johnston, Human Resources director, emphasized both calendars were tentative, but as a requirement, RRPS had to have calendars reviewed in February. Human Resources Executive Director Mike Chavez said, in his opinion from his study of the legislature, that the 192-day calendar is more likely.
The “traditional” 182-day calendar has the first day of school as Aug. 9 for secondary grades and Aug. 12 for elementary schools; the last day of school would be May 18. The 192-day calendar has secondary students back in the classrooms Aug. 4, elementary students back Aug. 9 and May 27 as the final day of the school year.
Cleveland said in light of the apparent loss of learning due to the pandemic and virtual learning — a struggle for many students — that she anticipated the state legislature mandating the extra 10 days of learning time for the 2021-22 school year.

In other matters, the board:
• Heard an update on the start of high school and middle school sports from Larry Chavez, executive director of athletics;
• Applauded the 87 All-State fine arts students, who excelled in band, orchestra, choir and drama;
• OK’d new instructional materials for elementary students, which Chief Academic Officer Carl Leppelman said will require assistance from the state of about $350,000; and
• Approved New Mexico School Board Association “Excellence in Student Achievement” awards for all of the district’s schools — from Shining Stars Preschool to the high schools, whom Galbraith said, “have done an amazing job this year.”
The board’s next meeting will be the lone one planned to date for March, on the 8th, again a virtual session starting at 5:30 p.m.

Public comment
As she usually does, Galbraith summarized public comments the board had received since its last meeting. Several dealt with the desire to get teachers vaccinated before they returned to the classrooms, but two commenters said they wanted board members to substitute-teach.
Mary Bissell, who said she was a 10-year classroom veteran, said, “I’d like to invite all of you to come work in our schools — you said it yourselves: We need the community to step up.”
And Randall Guarnieri wrote, “I was very surprised to see the lack of respect the board unanimously showed to staff members’ concerns (at a previous meeting). I expect to see you all step up and apply for substitute positions (if you’re qualified).”
“We can’t work for the district,” board member Catherine Cullen told the Observer. “Yes, we all have jobs, but even if we could, school board members – as far as my understanding of the law – couldn’t.”
In the state’s 2006 edition of statutes, section 22-5-5 deals with two items, compensation and prohibited employment:
A. The members of a local school board shall serve without compensation.
B. No member of a local school board shall be employed in any capacity by a school district governed by that local school board during the term of office for which the member was elected or appointed.

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Gary Herron | Observer staff writer