Would you spend $1 million a year to generate a $500,000 return?

That’s the kind of question facing the Rio Rancho Public Schools Board of Education when it comes to sustaining the SpaRRk Academy, which is run out of Joe Harris Elementary.

The board wrestled with that financial question at its Jan. 9 meeting, hearing from parents in the public comment session how beneficial it was for their students as well as the cost to keep the school open, considering declining enrollment.

SpaRRk Academy began during the pandemic, as a hybrid alternative to in-person learning, giving parents of elementary students the opportunity for their kids to keep learning virtually.

Janna Chenault, the district’s elementary school improvement officer, told the board enrollment for the 2022-23 school year dropped 55%  from the 2021-22 school year – from 224 students to 87 students, with 20 students being the most for any one grade (third and fifth).

Chenault said 83 former students are back in traditional RRPS settings, 54 of last year’s fifth-graders are now in RRPS middle schools, and 25 left the city. The school has 22 students new to it this school year.

The school has five general education teachers and one special education teacher, which it shares with Joe Harris Elementary; students do virtual learning four days a week and are on the Joe Harris campus for in-person learning, including art, on Thursdays.

Parents are responsible for transporting their students to the school on Thursdays.

The goal of the school, she said, was to grow it and make it innovative, but it’s become fiscally challenging: Operational costs are $1 million, and the current number of students generates state funding to the tune of $500,000.

There’s no assurance enrollment will increase, and as Joe Harris Elementary’s student population is growing by about 100 students each year, the site for SpaRRk Academy will need to change.

Board members Jessica Tyler and Gary Tripp were seemingly set to close the school soon, with Tyler terming it a decision over something “nice to have vs. something we need to have,” and said the district wasn’t in a position to sustain it, especially with what it will be spending to equip and operate the new CTE building, which will certainly have more than 87 students.

Superintendent Sue Cleveland said the ultimate decision on the school might be easier to make when the Fiscal 2024 budget is known, but that won’t happen until probably after the 60-day legislative session, which began Jan. 17.

“It’s hard to make a decision when you don’t know what money you’re going to have,” Cleveland said.

“The budget is an unknown right now,” Cleveland said, not expecting to know until state funding is known around April 1, but RRPS is “not in a terrible rush.”

Still board President Amanda Galbraith reasoned, staff members and the students’ parents need to know in a timely basis to make alternative plans for schooling.

Cleveland reiterated the district being $1 million short for instructional materials and another $2 million short for transportation.

Rather than decide SpaRRk’s fate in in January, the board voted to hear options, including where to relocate SpaRRk Academy, if necessary, or close it at the Feb. 27 meeting.

“It’s a given it can’t stay (at Joe Harris) very long,” adding the district has a “terrible need” for a fifth middle school

  • In other matters before the board on Jan. 9:
    Galbraith was re-elected as its president, Jeffery Morgan is vice president, Noreen Scott is the secretary.
  • Board members accepted Nusenda Credit Union’s contribution of $15,000 for sponsorship of staff appreciation events, annual retirement celebrations, etc.; and also Huitt-Zollars donation of paper plotter rolls to Cleveland and Rio Rancho high schools;
  • Heard Human Resource and Special Services departmental reports, which included news of only 10 teaching vacancies, while bus driving and custodial vacancies have been filled; and
  • Awarded a bid to Vigil & Associates Architectural for architectural design work on CTE Building renovations. Six firms applied, and three were interviewed before Vigil & Associates scored the highest and received the recommendation from the purchasing department.

The school board’s next meeting is at 5:30 p.m. Jan. 23.