Ghosts of Schools PastSanta Fe learns hard lessons
Once the scene of schoolgirl crushes, high-pitched laughter and, sometimes, tears, Larragoite Elementary School now stands vacant. Its students left last spring, along with those at Kaune and Alvord elementaries—the first in a wave of school consolidations intended to address Santa Fe Public Schools’ looming budget problems.
“Our funding is shrinking, and things are not getting better,” SFPS Superintendent Bobbie Gutierrez tells SFR. “We have to look at where we can save every single red cent.”
Gutierrez often invokes nationwide trends—evaporating stimulus funds, rising costs and state budget problems—to explain SFPS’ rationale. But Santa Fe’s parents, by and large, aren’t biting.
Cate Moses, founder of the Santa Fe Alliance of Parents for Progressive Leadership in Education (APPLE), says SFPS’ leadership has “tunnel vision; they’re always in crisis mentality.”
A panicky outlook, Moses says, is hardly conducive to objective decisions.
“Why are they in favor of consolidation?” Moses wonders. “All the research says it’s better to have more small schools—and cheaper, too!”
That’s evident in the case of Acequia Madre Elementary, another school scheduled to close at the end of the current school year (and one of only three whose students passed No Child Left Behind testing standards this year). The estimated cost to consolidate Acequia Madre with Atalaya Elementary is approximately $28 million—a figure that dwarfs the estimated $250,000 SFPS will save. (In August, SFPS Board Vice President Mary Ellen Gonzales compared it to “going out to buy a new car and discovering your only choice is a Rolls Royce.”)
The district’s headaches don’t end there. Critics say SFPS hasn’t managed its money responsibly—an assertion that can be difficult to verify given the district’s restrictive records policy [News, Nov. 17: “A Teachable Moment”].
As a result, the public outcry at SFPS’ budget and consolidation meetings last spring has only intensified, and even Gutierrez admits that the board’s decision to close Acequia Madre “is still objectionable to most of the parents.”
If that’s the case, then a Dec. 1 presentation by Architectural Research Consultants, Inc.—a firm SFPS contracted to assess the district’s south-shifting demographics and devise a plan for improving flow and efficiency among schools—was decidedly tone-deaf. All four of the proposals ARC presented called for closing Acequia Madre, and three also called for closing another small school, Nava Elementary.
“They worked on the assumption that Acequia Madre would be closed because that has been the board’s directive,” Gutierrez says. “But, if the board should change its mind, it would be brought back into the overall planning.”
A reversal isn’t impossible: In February, three of SFPS’ five board members’ terms expire.
“The prudent thing would be to put off all these decisions until the three new school board members are elected,” Fred Nathan, executive director of the Santa Fe think tank Think New Mexico, says. “Because if it is three new board members, and I suspect it might be, they might have a totally different perspective.”
Nathan has been a staunch advocate of small schools, largely for the same reasons Moses cites. But Gutierrez has often said the nation is moving in a bigger-school direction, placing her at odds with vocal contingents of parents and advocates.
Most recently, Gutierrez came under fire for placing restrictions on school board candidates.
“Two people in our community have taken what I asked totally out of context,” Gutierrez says. “If [candidates] want to speak with principals and the staff at schools, I’ve just asked that they make those arrangements through my office so I can make sure that everyone has fair and equal access to schools.”
(Gutierrez says she does trust the principals to make the decision.)
To some, SFPS doesn’t have the trust capital to make such demands. On Dec. 6, Attorney General Gary King issued an opinion that SFPS can use bond funds for projects not outlined in the bond issue when voters approved it—namely, consolidation.
State Sen. Phil Griego, D-Los Alamos, who brought the question before the AG, disagrees with its outcome.
“It sets a dangerous precedent because school boards can come in and say, ‘This is the way we’re going to do it,’ and then, at the back of their mind, say, ‘No, we’re going to use it for this other thing,’” Griego says. “Why don’t you just cut the deal in the back room?”