There were heavy and somber discussions at Monday night’s meeting of the Rio Rancho Public Schools Board of Education.

Although what turned out to be a nearly five-hour meeting began cheerfully enough, recognizing some accomplishments at Cyber Academy, hailing two custodians who desperately tried to save another custodian’s life at Enchanted Hills Elementary, and saluting the state championship wrestling and cheerleading squads at Cleveland High, much of the rest of the meeting dealt with the deepening deficit.

The most time was spent on the final three agenda items: a new warehouse and curriculum and instruction project; an energy plan; and the 2013-14 preliminary budget.

Two of the three items saw 4-1 votes by the board, which is usually unanimous in its decisions. All five board members were present.

The warehouse

New board member Catherine Cullen was opposed to spending millions on a new curriculum and instruction building for the district. The money for the warehouse came from the passage of bonds and was thus OK’d by voters several years ago.

“Rio Rancho Public Schools has needed a warehouse 15 of 19 years (of the district’s existence),” Chief Operations Officer Richard Bruce said. The new facility, to be built adjacent to the district offices at 500 Laser Road, “is win-win all around.”

Bruce and Superintendent Sue Cleveland told the board that items stored in what typically are classrooms at Rio Rancho Middle School would be relocated in the warehouse, freeing up those classrooms for students.

But Cullen said during recent her tours of every school in the district, she’s seen some needs that should be addressed before the district spends money on a C&I building, which would include some classrooms and a new board room.

“Personally, I am excited about this … I’m all for it,” said Don Schlichte, in his 13th year on the board.

Facilities Director Al Sena called the 9,300-square-foot warehouse, at a cost of $2 million, “the long-term best fit for the district’s needs.”

Cleveland reiterated how lucky the district had been to purchase land behind the district offices and thus not have to build a warehouse off site.

“We’re making a long-term commitment to this site,” she said, before the 4-1 vote.

After a five-minute break at 9 p.m., the board delved into its remaining agenda items, the energy plan and the budget.

The energy plan

The energy plan’s goal is to reduce the need for energy by 10 percent, saving more than $200,000 in annual costs. The plan includes a lot of retro-fitting, weather-stripping, new aerators and occupancy sensors as short-term action items, and long-term ideas, such as replacing roofs and inefficient water heaters, putting in low-flow water equipment and replacing lighting with LED fixtures.

That document was accepted after a 4-1 vote of the board; board president Carl Harper voted in opposition.

The budget

Finance Director Randy Evans carefully explained his ideas on how the district could make almost $2.6 million in cuts to maintain a $4 million cash balance at the end of the 2013-14 school year.

The cash balance at the start of the 2012-13 school year had been just over $9 million, and an estimated $4.2 million cash deficit for this school year leaves the district with a projected cash balance of $4.8 million at the end of June 2013.

An expected cash deficit in 2013-14 of $3.4 million would result in an ending cash balance of $1.4 million, far less than the district strives for. Thus, Evans’s ideas for profitable cuts, such as not immediately hiring new teachers and other personnel: “Don’t be hasty filling vacancies,” he said, noting that “Time is money.”

Board member Divyesh Patel recalled how the district faced an ominous budget in 2008-09 and used administrators — including Cleveland and Evans — to serve as substitutes, thus saving what eventually amounted to $2.4 million.

Evans said some $800,000 had been budgeted to pay for subs this school year, and about $1 million has been spent to date bringing them into classrooms.

Patel made a motion, which was seconded by Martha Janssen, to enact an immediate hiring freeze on all non-teaching positions.

“We have to make hard decisions,” Patel said.

“Many of us have already cut those non-teaching positions,” Cleveland countered, noting the loss of a custodian at a school or an electrician at the district office might save money, but at what overall cost?

Schlichte said making such a freeze could have “unintended consequences,” and recommended allowing Cleveland, Bruce and Carl Leppelman, director of Curriculum and Instruction, to decide what positions needed to be filled.

“I wish we never used the phrase ‘hiring freeze,’” Cleveland said. “We need to look at each position on a case-by-case basis.”

Patel was the lone dissenter in another 4-1 vote, this time on the adoption of Evans’s preliminary budget and allowing top administrators to decide which empty positions to fill.

That budget, by the way, didn’t include what could be as much as $5 million to enact the controversial, state-mandated teacher and principal evaluations, to be implemented at the start of the 2013-14 school year.

The board’s next meeting is slated for Monday, June 10, at 5:30 p.m. As a result of the RRPS meeting with Albuquerque Public Schools officials last Thursday, it is possible a special meeting may be planned before that day.