Several years in the making, the Hobbs Municipal Schools Board of Education gave the go-ahead Tuesday to proceed with a project to address the district’s aging middle school campuses.
The board voted unanimously to accept a recommendation from the district’s Facilities Assessment Community Team (FACT) committee to pursue the project to build a fourth middle school in Hobbs.
The committee, made up of representatives from across the Hobbs community, started work in 2019. At the time, the consensus was a fourth middle school was needed “to accommodate the middle school enrollment and reduce the overcrowding present at all three middle schools,” according to a letter to the board from Superintendent Gene Strickland.
The FACT team’s deliberations were interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent school shut-downs, but the group carried on its discussions starting last month with the help of consulting architect Marilyn Strube from Albuquerque-based Greer-Stafford Architecture, sending its recommendation to the board this week.
The proposal calls for building a fourth middle school and replacing the current 70-year-old Heizer Middle School on East Stanolind Road in Hobbs.
The new middle school is estimated to cost $65 million with a projected $61 million price tag for a new Heizer MS. The board Tuesday authorized the district to begin discussions with the state’s Public Schools Capital Outlay Council (PSCOC) for completion of project.
The district already has an agreement with PSCOC, approved in 2020, for partial state funding for the project. Under that agreement, the state would fund 44 percent, or $55.4 million of the projected $126 million cost for both schools, with the district on the hook for the remaining 56 percent of the cost, more than $70.5 million.
That state match “is fantastic for you right now,” Strube said, and it’s locked in. By comparison, the state has decreased the amount it will provide to new projects this year to 20 percent of the total cost, leaving local school districts responsible for 80 percent of the bill. And that match amount is expected to decrease further in the future, Strube and Strickland told the board.
But there are a couple of possibilities on the horizon which could decrease the district’s financial liability further, Strickland told the board. The district plans to apply for a “match waiver’ from the PSCOC, which could decrease the district’s share by as much as $25.5 million, he said. The New Mexico Legislature is also expected to take up bills in the coming session that could increase the state’s match from 44 percent to 74 percent, or even 94 percent, Strickland said.
Either eventuality would mean the district would be better able to accomplish the project with its current bond funding availability of $45 million. Bonding capacity is based on a percentage, set by the state’s constitution at 6 percent of the almost $2.1 billion taxable property values in the district, finance director Kerri Gray told the board. Total bonding capacity for the district is $125 million, with some $46.4 million already used, she said.
The district actually has about $78 million remaining from that initial $125 million. But the board has opted not to push too close to that total due to the potential volatility of property values within the district, Strickland told the News-Sun.
Board member Terry O’Brain — who did join the rest of the board in voting to approve to FACT committee recommendation when push came to shove — expressed concerns over assuming that much additional debt for the district. He pointed to ages of other facilities in the district and enrollment projections at the elementary schools even greater than those forecast for at the middle and high school levels as concerns.
“I know we need another middle school,” O’Brain said. “My hesitation is maxing out our bonding capacity because our elementary (campuses) are stressed as well.
“I’d be hesitant to throw all our money into one pot. The same study could look at the elementary (schools, which are) the same age and the same potential for growth. I want to be sure we’re addressing all the needs district wide.”
Hobbs enrollment peaked in 2019 at 10,664 students across the district, with 2,558 of those students spread across the district’s three middle schools, Strube told the board. While enrollment declined during the pandemic, projections indicate the district should approach or even exceed that 2019 peak, with anywhere from 10,345 students on the low end to 10,875 on the high end by the 2027-28 academic year, she said.
Enrollment across the district “has gone down,” Strube said. “But we’ve been looking at projections. We feel by 2027 you’ll be very close to where you were in 2019.”
Even with fewer students, the district’s three middle schools remain at or near functional student capacity today, she told the board.
Heizer Middle School has a functional instructional space capacity, including portable classrooms, of 622 students with current enrollment of 605.
Highland Middle School — the “newest” middle school in the district at 64 years — host current enrollment of 841 students with functional capacity of 726.
Houston Middle School, which is 87 years old, houses 844 students this year in instructional space designed for 730, Strube said.
Maximum capacity at the three campuses are 928, 1,084 and 1,089, respectively, Strube said. Projected enrollment for the three will be 665 at Heizer, 895 at Highland and 854 at Houston. But, even at current enrollment levels, education begins to suffer, she said.
Filling a school to maximum capacity, as computed by the state, would mean using “every instructional space and loading it to the max,” Strube said. “Everybody knows that’s not feasible or realistic.
“Even the state realizes all three of those schools are in need of help and have reached pretty much their useful lifespan. With functional capacity, we know they’re handling the number of students, but is that the best use of the facilities? The best use for the students?”
Since the initial project for Heizer and the new middle school was awarded in 2020, PSCOC and the state’s Public School Facility Authority — the state agency that supports funding for school design and construction — both Houston and Highland middle schools in Hobbs have reached the point they would most likely qualify for similar funding as Heizer, Strube said.
Preliminary work on a new middle school, which would include site selection and design, could begin as early as January, according to a possible timeline Strube presented to the board on Tuesday. Work on the Heizer replacement project probably wouldn’t start until January 2024, with construction slated for a section of the current campus on Stanolind Road, much like the currently project building a new Southern Heights Elementary near Texas Street in Hobbs.
Following that possible timeline, the new middle school would open in the summer of 2026, with the new Heizer set to open summer 2027. The full proposal, which was not voted on Tuesday, also calls for the eventual replacement of both Highland and Houston middle schools, with one scheduled to open in 2028 and the other in mid-2029.
Both Houston and Highland campus have been recognized by the state as more in need of renovation or replacement than Heizer since the initial project award in 2020, Strickland told the board.
“The FACT committees conservative view was we need to do what’s palatable and continue to meet the growth needs” in the district, Strickland said. “Hobbs is one of two districts experiencing growth in the state (with Los Alamos).
“And the average age of our facilities qualifies for Medicare. They long ago got their AARP cards.”
Andy Brosig’s email is firstname.lastname@example.org.