Hot-air balloons float over the under-construction Joe Harris Elementary in February. Courtesy of Ray Palmer.

Rio Rancho Public Schools will open Joe Harris Elementary in the fall, even with a tightening budget, the board of education decided Thursday night.

During a live-streamed meeting, board members voted unanimously to open the new school even though it will add to expenses when district officials are expecting budget cuts from the state.

“You look at the pros and cons, and it does seem to be important that we move forward,” Superintendent Sue Cleveland said after the vote. “And I think the community will be very appreciative of that, and we will find a way to make it work.”

Chief Operations Officer Mike Baker said opening the new Shining Stars Preschool would be a wash financially because it’s replacing an old school. With Joe Harris adding a school to alleviate over-crowding, he said it would mean another $1.4 million in personnel expenses.

The district had already set aside enough money to cover one-time opening expenses such as supplies, Baker said. Plus, RRPS would still have utility and other costs for the building, even with it closed.

Building the school cost $30 million. The district had been working toward it for years, and voters supported bond issues to pay for construction.

Although state officials say they’re not considering taking school districts’ cash reserves to balance the budget, it could happen, Baker and Cleveland warned, causing RRPS to lose the money it set aside to open the elementary.

In addition, if the school didn’t open this year, Cleveland said, it would probably sit vacant for two years, because state officials expect finances in the 2021-22 fiscal year to be even worse than in the upcoming year. She said it would be vulnerable to vandalism then.

Also, Baker said opening Harris Elementary would allow for better social-distancing among elementary students across the district, which might be required this fall.

Cleveland said incremental budget cuts would have to be made across the district to pay for the Harris Elementary opening. Spreading out the reductions would decrease the impact on any one school or department.

Without such budget cuts, Cleveland said, RRPS wouldn’t have opened half of its schools.

“Every school is impacted when you open a new school,” Cleveland said. “That’s how it’s generally been historically.”

Nonetheless, she didn’t expect irreparable harm from budget cuts to pay for staff at Harris.

Cleveland said the district could open the new school to students outside the immediate area, and increased enrollment would bring in more money.

“It is a challenge, where we are right now, and no one could have predicted where we are right now, with the pandemic,” Cleveland said.

Cleveland said she hoped opening the school would become a catalyst for good things in the community and local economy.

Board President Amanda Galbraith said she was worried about the budget and the possibility of having to layoff teachers, but she thought opening Harris Elementary was the right thing to do.

In other business, Baker discussed how he planned to adjust the district budget. Because no one knows how big of a reduction schools will face, he and his staff prepared for 5-, 10-, 15- and 25 percent cuts.

He said the state would likely forgo all or most of the 4 percent pay increases the legislature approved. Then, with up to 15 percent cuts, RRPS could balance the budget by using cash reserves saved for such a situation, not filling most positions left open by attrition and not adding new positions despite growth.

If cuts surpassed 15 percent, Baker said, there would be little choice but to reduce hours or lay off people.

He expects legislators to determine the budget in one or two special sessions. Federal appropriations for schools could help the situation.

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