May 26, 2017
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Anson Stevens-Bollen

Sugar Crash

After a bitter defeat in the sugary-drink tax election, a look what’s next for pre-K in Santa Fe—and for the man who pinned his name on the plan

May 10, 2017, 12:00 am

The mayor was at home. After months spent talking about the futures of 966 children, he was presently concerned primarily with the immediate futures of two.

It was 7 pm, polling places across Santa Fe were closing and, within hours, his daughters—and everyone else—would know whether his sugary-drink tax plan to fund 966 seats in expanded pre-kindergarten programs had succeeded or been rejected by the community he hoped it would benefit.

The mayor had a sense the special election wouldn’t go his way. He wanted his daughters to be prepared.

A line of voters snaked out the door at St. John’s United Methodist church on Election Day.
Aaron Cantú

Cameron Gonzales, 18 years old and a senior at Santa Fe Prep, worked on the Pre-K for Santa Fe political action committee as part of her school’s community service requirement. Cadence, a seventh-grader at the Academy for Technology and the Classics, spent time volunteering on Election Day.

“They very much have been part of the dinner-table conversation about, ‘why am I doing this?’ … I said to them, ‘I’m very thankful for you guys putting yourselves in this and you made me proud, and are you guys ready for both winning and losing?’” Santa Fe Mayor Javier Gonzales recalls. “And of course they said, ‘We’re gonna win. And we’re gonna do this.’ And I said, ‘No, I want you to be ready for the alternative that we lose.’”

They did lose. Badly. Nearly 20,000 voters showed up to defeat the mayor’s proposal by a 58-42 percent margin.

Mayor Javier Gonzales is still busy sifting through what went wrong with his initiative.
Matt Grubs
“I think that when the [Pre-K for Santa Fe] campaign shared the numbers with me from the Southside, it was a larger gap than I had anticipated,” Gonzales tells SFR in his City Hall office during an interview two days later. “But when it lost by the margins it had and then the early votes came in from the Genoveva Chavez, it was pretty clear that the referendum wasn’t going to be successful.”

Gonzales now has to move forward, his signature initiative during his lone term as mayor a failed attempt at finding a way to pay for early childhood education programs.

He’s just finished a meeting with City Manager Brian Snyder. He’s in jeans, with his dress shirt unbuttoned at the top. No tie. He’s growing his beard back. If he’s not feeling in a reflective mood, he at least looks the part.

By the end of the month, Gonzales says, he needs to decide if he’ll run for a second term as mayor or set his sights on a higher office, such as governor. He says there are people with designs on the big office at City Hall who are wondering what he’ll do, and it’s only fair to decide sooner rather than later. But he’s not likely to decide now, in the week immediately following the sugary-drink tax defeat.

Gonzales is busy sifting through what went wrong—and of course making sure his daughters understand how to handle a tough loss.

“The girls were sad. Cameron spent yesterday writing I think a 10-page-long letter to the editor. … I told her, ‘You’re going to have to reduce [that] by about 90 percent,’” he says. “And of course I was a little bit worried about the kids going to school and how they were going to be. They came back and said everything was cool. Which meant, I think, families made their vote and were ready to move on.”

As far as his own wounds go, Gonzales seems sanguine after the defeat.

“You have to be prepared for whatever the result is and wake up the next day and be ready to serve,” he says, sounding as though he thought a bit about that line. But, he adds, “There was for sure some sadness that started really with the fact that it was a missed opportunity to move into the area that would have fundamentally transformed our community when it came to quality education.”

Gonzales didn’t lose on the idea of expanding early childhood education. It remains widely popular. But it’s not cheap. According to the United Way of Santa Fe County, the state reimburses approved pre-K programs $6,450 per 4-year-old. Early pre-K, for 3-year-olds, is even more expensive at $7,418 per child. Many of the voters who spoke to SFR on Election Day felt as though hitching the city’s horse to that educational wagon meant Santa Fe would have to fund pre-K for the long haul.

One teacher who feared backlash if her school found out her views would only speak about her vote if SFR agreed not to identify her. “If we really cared about education,” she said, “it would be funded the long-term way, where you put your money towards things you feel are important. And I just feel that [the tax] is a little bit shortsighted as far as a long-term solution to what’s going on with families in Santa Fe.”

Gonzales disagrees.

“The city shouldn’t have to own every challenge that’s in our community that needs to be addressed,” he says. “What the city can be is a convener and a co-partner in it. And we have to start looking at partnerships to deliver on a lot of community-based programs that aren’t being met.”

For the mayor, extending the city’s reach into the classroom makes sense because there are partners ready to go—the United Way and the Early Childhood Center of Excellence at Santa Fe Community College are two he mentions—and New Mexico actually does well at delivering what early childhood education it funds.

But the city is just a year removed from a $15 million dollar deficit. And though the mayor and city councilors are quick to point out surpluses in various city funds for the fiscal year that begins July 1, that spending won’t start for months. Times still feel tight and the city has increased fees to help it weather the financial storm.

“When they use a parking slot or when they use a city rec center, those are all areas where they have to dig into their pocket a little more,” Gonzales says, acknowledging the situation facing residents.

Then he pauses.

“I think … I think that the public got it right on this.”

He’s not backing away from pre-K, nor does he think the community will, but it seems a retooled sugary-drink tax effort to pay for it is not in the cards. Finding money for expanded pre-K won’t be easy, the mayor acknowledges. And he doesn’t think spending existing city money on a new $7.7 million program is smart.

On that point, he’s in line with one of his chief opponents on the sugary-drink tax, City Councilor Ron Trujillo. The District 4 representative has consistently said Santa Fe shouldn’t be getting involved in education because there’s too much that needs attention after some lean years in Santa Fe.

The mayor says there’s $150 million in deferred maintenance on city roads and buildings. The affordable housing rental deficit hovers around 2,400 units.

Pre-K may be important to the community, but if it’s going to be funded, there needs to be a new revenue stream—and it can’t hurt the same Santa Feans who are struggling to find an affordable place to live.

“How we find those revenues is not something that should solely fall on middle class or lower-income people,” Gonzales says.

For now, Santa Fe will have to do with the community’s existing pre-kindergarten programs. Many of them are excellent, top-rated early childhood education efforts. But there simply are not enough. An economic study by economist Kelly O’Donnell, which proponents of the sugary-drink tax used to bolster their case, argued that Santa Fe’s mix of public pre-K, federally funded Head Start and quality private early childhood programs is lacking more than 966 seats.

Over the past couple of decades, researchers have homed in on the benefits of early childhood education. The vast majority of states have some sort of public program for 4-year-olds—just six don’t fund pre-K. Nationwide, funding has steadily increased for such programs, jumping by 47 percent in the last five years according to the Education Commission of the States.

Since 2005, New Mexico has increased its funding to pre-kindergarten programs from $5 million to $54 million. The state focuses on 4-year-olds, though its system also contains an early pre-K component that’s been pegged at $24 million for three years in a row. Both programs target children in low-income school districts.

The O’Donnell study says the state pays for 460 kids in pre-K programs in the Santa Fe area, with 48 spots for 3-year-olds in early pre-K programs.

Despite relatively robust increases in money given to early childhood education at the state level—funding has increased by 80 percent over the last five years—expanding the program to something that approaches universal pre-K has proven impossible. The leading plan is to take a greater share of money each year from the state’s Land Grant Permanent Fund, which was worth $15.8 billion at the end of March.

But that would require an amendment to the state Constitution first approved by the Legislature, then the voters. Advocates of early childhood education have tried to advance such a measure for years. Despite the fact that a proposed amendment passed the state House last legislative session, it and similar measures have never gotten past the Senate Finance Committee. The fiscally conservative group of senators has been loath to approve any plan to take more money from funds that are supposed to be available for New Mexicans forever.

In an old building on the Aspen Community Magnet School campus just off Agua Fría Street, four dozen 4-year-olds are having breakfast. It’s surprisingly quiet—though not actually quiet, mind you, because four dozen 4-year-olds have a certain irrepressible energy. The fluorescent lights are either off or filtered by a blue cloth, and there’s a pair of long light strings from one wall to the other—the kind you might see in the backyard of someone who has their backyard together.

Pre-K students in a mostly state-funded program from United Way get to work on development of social and emotional skills.
Matt Grubs
Teachers are sitting among the kids, their knees scrunched up toward their chins. Food is served family-style, with most everything in the center of the table. It encourages socialization, a key aspect of the pre-kindergarten curriculum.

Jennifer Salinas is a master teacher at the center on the Aspen campus, run by United Way of Santa Fe County. Her waiting list of 40-50 families would nearly double her current enrollment of 52. That’s part of why United Way is working for more early education seats, including plans to open new programs in the former Kaune Elementary School building—a vision that’s at least a year away.

Those kind of learning centers are popular with parents and popular with policymakers. “Just that overwhelming understanding across the political spectrum and in a variety of settings of the importance of those early years—that’s very, very heartening to see,” Salinas tells SFR.

Pre-K is free for parents who get into United Way programs. There are no income requirements, and enrollment happens through a lottery. The center emphasizes serving lower-income families, but kids here come from all backgrounds. School starts at 8 am and ends at 3 pm, which means parents have most of the day free to work. Set aside the educational component of what happens here and it’s still easy to see why the program is so popular.

“Expenses for childcare are really, really challenging to folks,” says Claire Dudley Chavez, executive vice president for policy and stakeholder engagement at the local United Way. The cost can easily mount to $1,000-$1,500 a month per child for a private early childhood education experience. “You can pay more in New Mexico for childcare than you can for in-state tuition at UNM,” she says.

But the educational part of what happens in the programs is vital. Kids are learning how to learn at this age, experts say. How that happens strongly influences how students perform not just in the immediate years after pre-kindergarten, but all the way through high school and beyond. It can seem hard to grasp, because so much of what happens in a pre-K classroom looks like play.

“Some of that is naturally occurring at this age, but it’s just about being aware of those moments when you can build on those skills that are naturally developing to help them grow even faster and further,” Salinas says.

At this age, she points out, children are learning “to think about how they think.” If a student chooses to paint a flower red or draw an orange sky, a sharp teacher will ask why they did it. Educational experts say that kind of questioning and encouragement pays dividends for the states that choose to invest in early childhood education, and research backs it up. The O’Donnell report pegged an economic benefit to Santa Fe of $32.4 million for every two-year group of students receiving free pre-kindergarten.

“Often times, before that, it was ‘Oh, you just play with the kids all day,’” Chavez tells SFR of the shift in thinking.

The state pays for about 508 spots in Santa Fe, but a city study said there’s a need for 966 more.
Matt Grubs

To do everything it wants to in its pre-K programs, the United Way supplements the $6,450 per child that it gets from the state. Since New Mexico has educational requirements for teachers in state-funded pre-kindergarten programs, many of the instructors are pursuing—and paying for—their own education in addition to holding down a job. Public school pre-K programs pay better than most private ones, so to build continuity, the United Way matches school district salaries.

Not only does the United Way attract hard-to-find educators that way, Salinas says, “it also means the team we’ve built up here, we’ve all been working together for a really long time. So that translates into better-quality education. We work really well, we plan together and develop curriculum together. It all stacks up to developing a high-quality program.”

In a classroom down the hall, that program plays out. Two teachers and about a dozen kids are building castles and a home for a plastic whale. At the other end of the room, another group sitting around a table expands to include the occasional student who pops in, then contracts as another student heads off to explore a different workstation. In an hour, they’ll come back together for story time and talk with each other about what they did this morning.

It looks like the simplest thing in the world, but as Santa Fe is finding out, pre-K is a lot more complex than many people realize.


Breakdown Break Down

How and where the soda tax stumbled

You don’t spend $1.6 million on an election in a city where fewer than 20,000 people voted without having a pretty good idea of what the result is going to be. It’s safe to say that the pro- and anti-tax campaigns, who together spent $3.2 million (split almost equally), knew Election Day would likely bring a defeat for the 2-cents-an-ounce tax.

Of course, that conclusion was months in the making. As political action committees spent all that cash on mailers and radio ads and TV commercials, the winning strategy was one that cobbled together voters in different parts of the city who had very different reasons for voting the way they did.

In Districts 1 and 2—which Lonna Atkeson, director of UNM’s Center for the Study of Voting, Elections and Democracy, calls the “rich districts”on the city’s north and east sides—the Republican vote matters. (Yes, they do exist in Santa Fe.) Republicans are some of the most reliable voters in low-turnout elections. Because of the tax increase and foray of city government into a new area of service, it’s likely most of them voted against the tax.

“It was a real test case,” Atkeson tells SFR about the election. “Cities need resources; how do they go about getting them? It was an experiment. Did it fail because the tax was too high or did it seem like they were grabbing too much?”

It’s hard to tell without an exit poll, and it’s not clear either campaign paid for one. But Loveless Johnson III, the co-founder of the anti-tax political action committee Smart Progress New Mexico, thinks conservative voters in Districts 1 and 2 were joined in voting no by progressives who supported Bernie Sanders in the last presidential election. Sanders has been vocally opposed to sugary-drink taxes.

Bernie Sanders visited Santa Fe last year, and some say “Berniecrats” played a big role in sinking the sugar tax.

“The ‘Berniecrats’ in Santa Fe make up a larger proportion of the electorate than they do in most other towns this size,” Johnson tells SFR at a coffee shop the morning after the election. “We knew that if we could ignite them, particularly in Districts 1 and 2 where a lot of them live, that they would make the difference.”

Atkeson says that strategy makes sense, particularly in a special election where the presidential race is so recent and raw.

“Everything we know about how people process and learn and make decisions; if they’re undecided and they hear someone in their party about whom they already project positive feelings and beliefs … that person’s view matters in informing their decision,” she says.

Johnson tells SFR he thinks a lot of voters in Districts 3 and 4 were disenchanted when they discovered that the special election didn’t mean that expanded pre-K would be ready come Labor Day.

“The mayor’s promise to those 1,000 families for this upcoming school year was not going to be fulfilled,” he says. “He knew that when he made that promise. And that’s why I think the ‘no’ vote was so overwhelming.”

Further, the immediacy of a sugary-drink tax’s impact on a lower-income voter’s pocketbook carries a lot of weight at the polling place. The somewhat harder-to-envision better future promised by more widely available early childhood education programs may have simply faded.

Southside and District 4 voters turned out to vote no in overwhelming numbers. Both Districts 3 and 4 doubled their turnout from the last election and even built on it significantly from the last big city election—when Javier Gonzales was voted into the mayor’s office—in 2014. Together, the two districts tallied a 70 percent vote against the tax.

In District 1, meanwhile, the tax barely passed. Adding together the two “rich districts” Atkeson points out, the measure failed by 15 votes.

Atkeson says the defeat could have important implications for a mayor who has acknowledged the draw of higher office.

“That’s a huge fail,” she says bluntly. “When we think of things that go before local citizens like ballot initiatives, usually they pass. That’s painful for the mayor. He was basically slapped in the face by voters.”

In the short term, it may sting, the UNM professor says. But she also won’t write down the political value of a good thumping. This is New Mexico—and America—where voters love a redemption story.

“He’s willing to take risks and go for things that are important. If I think back to someone like Reagan—here’s someone who stood for something … and people really responded to that, because while they may not agree with him, they think, ‘At least we know where he stands and his commitment.’

“But on the other hand, he’s not in line with a lot of voters in a very progressive city. Are those the voters in a primary campaign?” she wonders.

It’s up to Javier Gonzales to decide if he wants to find out.


 

 

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