Alleging that Santa Fe Public Schools Superintendent Veronica Garcia is acting without considering all the facts, the New Mexico Public Education Department accused Garcia of “choosing to create fear” by discussing the possible closure of two elementary schools.
Garcia told SFR before Tuesday's school board meeting that the characterization was "insulting" and that the facts show increased funding from the state barely gets the school district back to the funding levels it had before going into the current school year.
She said Santa Fe schools are in a funding crisis, just like other districts across the state that have decided to cut programs, positions or pay.
"Are we all lying? Are we all trying to create fear? I don't think so," Garcia said. "What value would there be for us in doing that?"
The district is currently studying the possibility of closing EJ Martinez and Nava elementary schools in the 2017-18 school year. Nava would be repurposed as an alternative high school campus. EJ Martinez, which sits near the Christus St. Vincent Medical Center at Galisteo Street and San Mateo Road, is a property that could likely earn the district a pretty penny if it were sold. Students who attend the schools would be redistricted into other elementary schools that have space.
Last week, the state told districts it expected to be able to provide more money through a 1.86 percent boost to a key number used to calculate district funding. Garcia told SFR from the PED-sponsored budget briefing that the increase might replace some of the money the district lost as lawmakers twice adjusted that number—called "unit value"—downward in an effort to balance the budget as the economy faltered.
Tuesday night, the superintendent said that after running the numbers with SFPS financial staff, the district's best-case scenario was a $300,000 gain. But on Wednesday, district staff clarified that the gain was only compared to the funding cuts made in last fall's special session. When held up against the cuts from the recent legislative session and against the rest of the district's proposed budget, that gain evaporates, and the best-case scenario becomes a $2.74 million shortfall.
In addition to closing schools, which might save $1.3 million, the district has looked at potential savings such as cutting administrative expenses, the number of coaches and meals allowed for athletics programs, and salaries for principals. Even with a $2.74 million budget hole to dig itself out of, the district's current plan continues a policy of picking up increases in insurance premiums instead of passing them on to teachers.
"There are no good choices," Garcia said of the budget scenarios on Tuesday.
Much of the planning can't be solidified until after a legislative special session officially sets funding levels. That session has been promised by the governor but not yet scheduled.
"I don't care how many different ways they want to change this with smoke and mirrors," she said. "We'll stick to the facts."
But the Public Education Department stuck by its assessment that the district's discussion of closing Nava and EJ Martinez was premature.
"Instead of carefully considering the facts, Superintendent Garcia is choosing to create fear," said PED spokeswoman Amy Hasenberg in a statement emailed to SFR. "The district is failing to take into account added revenues for the 2017-2018 school year. We encourage the district to reevaluate based on these numbers before closing schools. As a former Secretary of Education, we expect Superintendent Garcia to understand this process and to not take closing a school lightly. Her decision, as it currently stands, is not fully formed and New Mexican students deserve better."
The SFPS Board of Education was set to discuss the school closures at its regular board meeting Tuesday night. Meetings at each of the elementary schools are planned this week as well. The board will consider redistricting plans next week and could decide on final action by early May.
This article has been updated with further details about SFPS budget projections.