Like Motown’s Four Tops used to sing, “It’s the Same Old Song” on the student-transportation budget for the Rio Rancho Public Schools Board of Education at its 71-minute meeting Oct. 25.

That million-dollar-elephant just won’t leave the room, and Superintendent Sue Cleveland is at her wit’s end trying to resolve it: a $1 million transportation deficit.

The district needs more bus drivers, and it’s hard to improve their wages when the department’s in the red. Plus, there is a need for more buses.

“We’ve had this (transportation problem) for 10 years,” Cleveland said.

She estimated 11 routes are not covered, and many drivers have to do double-duty to meet the transportation needs. Added to the problem of increasing the bus drivers’ ranks, Cleveland said after the district provides training for potential drivers to get their commercial driver’s licenses, some flee to take better-paying jobs in other districts, not necessarily behind the wheel of a school bus.

“So it is a complex problem,” Cleveland said, with the legislature apparently not about to change the funding formula for school districts.

RRPS Chief Operating Officer Mike Baker told the board, “… many of the districts actually receive a surplus” in transportation funds from the state.

Board member Catherine Cullen said she’d seen a recent news story in which Albuquerque Public Schools is offering a $1,000 bonus for new drivers and adding a dollar to the drivers’ hourly wage. But that’s not a practical solution for RRPS, deep in the hole, and Cullen — soon ending her second term on the board and not running for re-election — suggested suing the state.

“We pay our drivers less because we don’t have the money … (and) we don’t have sufficient buses,” Cleveland said. “We’re not alone in this.”

But, she said, the solution is not to “take it out of our classrooms,” thus, the state has “got to get realistic about the cost of transportation.”

The board wants to make the state provide adequate funding for its transportation needs among its legislative requests.

Legislative priorities also could include protection for the district from unfunded mandates; thoughts on an extended school year and what to do with what Cleveland said are 1,100 teaching vacancies in the state; obtaining a dedicated revenue stream for career-technical education; a payment in lieu of taxes (PILT) hold-harmless provision for school districts; and adjusting the time frame for education retirees to return to the schools to work again.

The board is expected to finalize its legislative priorities at its next meeting and share them with local legislators at a breakfast in November.

In other matters, board members:

  • gave kudos to Rio Rancho and Cleveland high schools’ marching bands for their first-place awards at the recent Pageant of Bands at RRHS;
  • commended five workers in the facilities department for receiving prestigious Ben Lujan Maintenance Awards: Michael Mermin (warehouse coordinator), Nick Pina (painter), Gabriel Gonzales (general technician) and HVAC techs Andrew Alarid and Jerrell Peralta.

The board’s next meeting is set for Nov. 8 at 5:30 p.m. A virtual work session is set to take place at 5:30 p.m. Monday, at which time the board will discuss the addition of student representation so students’ voices may be heard and from time to time.

About the author

Gary Herron | Observer staff writer