After Bill Richardson finishes his term as governor of New Mexico, perhaps he can travel the world saving schools. His involvement in the effort to ensure continued operations at the College of Santa Fe is well-documented and, during the Bike to Work Week festivities at the Railyard on May 15, the governor is reported to have said he’d like to see the little elementary school next door remain open and do well.
The school he was talking about is Alvord Elementary, a 75-year fixture in the Railyard neighborhood. Perhaps the governor was simply musing based on the happy swarm of kids who had walked over for what they thought was the best field trip ever—free T-shirts, candy and piñata smashing—but more likely he knew the Santa Fe Public Schools Board of Education had scheduled a special meeting for Tuesday, May 19, during which it planned to put Alvord on notice: One more year and then we’re closing the school forever.
The school board’s logic is simple: The school district is facing a $4.5 million dollar deficit this year (and that’s after receiving federal stimulus money). Alvord is a small school and, being downtown, is far away from the areas of most dense population growth. Other schools serve more kids and many facilities are lacking in books, computers, teachers and, sometimes, reliable plumbing. Planned schools, such as one in Rancho Viejo, appear indefinitely shelved and many kids toil in poorly insulated portable buildings with no air-conditioning and the reek of institutional dread.
People don’t get elected to the school board because they want to close schools and disrupt communities. These are gut-wrenching decisions to make and, as a friend and former elementary school teacher assures me, it’s hard to have a sense of how desperate and psychologically trying the situation is for poor and disenfranchised students at the fringes of the education system. If closing a school like Alvord can benefit the system as a whole, why not do it?
Because the school board’s simple logic is, in this case, wrong.
None of the cost cutting SFPS is doing right now is going to help disenfranchised students or open new schools; It will be eaten by the deficit. Small schools are simply better learning environments for students and better professional environments for teachers and staff. The school board’s own math demonstrates the net savings will be a hair over $98,000, but that doesn’t adjust for thousands of dollars in errors that Alvord supporters have pointed out and that SFPS has acknowledged. It also doesn’t account for the expense of mothballing a building. And if SFPS shuffled Alvord students to Larragoite Elementary, as it intends, Larragoite will lose its small-school stipend and the net result for the district will be a larger deficit. And then there’s pissing away the $2 million renovation Alvord underwent in 2004.
What’s more, Alvord has a plan.
It’s applying to be a magnet school, a designation that will allow it to remain under the SFPS umbrella, but develop an innovative sustainability-based curriculum that is in line with the community’s values, the neighborhood in which it sits and the national zeitgeist. Detractors say a sustainability program should be district-wide rather than focused on a single “boutique” school. That’s true, of course, but there’s no will at SFPS to create such a program on a broad basis. Except at Alvord.
Architects of the Alvord magnet curriculum are aware of the challenges facing the district as a whole and see the development of new programs as a path to bring about sea change for a public school system that can only be described as fundamentally unsustainable. Do we keep applying the same fixes to the same set of problems or do we shift our thinking and start planting the seeds of something new, Alvord supporters ask.
The school board’s response has been to encourage Alvord to seek charter school status during its remaining year, a kind of “show us how it’s done if you think you’re so clever” gambit. Ironically, the school board initially encouraged Alvord to become a magnet, as charter schools are less flexible and adaptable to shifting education strategies. What’s more, the path to becoming a charter at this late stage is so fraught with challenges and vagaries, it looks a lot like a dangling carrot that can never be caught.
All of this really only leaves one motive for SFPS’ urgent and strangely covert need to wash its hands of Alvord: real estate. I’m not accusing anyone of underhanded, shady, backbiting behavior, but it can’t have escaped the school board’s notice that, if you were to bulldoze that non-historic John Gaw Meem building, knock over the fruit trees, pawn off the playground equipment and dig out the gardens the kids have planted, the property would make one hell of an overflow pay-to-park lot for the parking-plagued Railyard.
Will the governor step in and save the day? Forget it. This is a community problem and the community should let SFPS know how we’d like it to be resolved.
UPDATE: Governor Richardson did, in fact, save the day. He directed New Mexico Secretary of Public Education Veronica Garcia to set aside $200,000 in emergency funds in order to ensure a two year reprieve for Alvord.
At a Wednesday, May 20 meeting of the school board, feeling remained contentious, with some board members feeling that the governor was only staving off the inevitable. Alameda Middle School did get the axe and the the board fell to arguing about what to do with it. District Superintendent Bobbie Gutierrez was instructed to come up with a proposal for what to do with the facility by Aug. 18. One has to wonder: why can't the school board figure out what its plan is and then start closing schools?