William Mee, president of the Agua Fria Village Association, knows well the halls of Agua Fria Elementary School, the Depression-era building now at the center of heated controversy.
“I went to school there; my children went to school there and, if we have any grandkids, I would assume they would go there,” Mee says. “It was fine when we went to school.”
Now, though, proposed renovations at Agua Fria have stirred up a wave of resistance in Agua Fria Village—because, according to village resident Tamara Lichtenstein, “It’s no longer a renovation project.”
After years’ and millions of dollars’ worth of renovations to the Works Progress Administration building, Santa Fe Public Schools is currently proposing to demolish it entirely.
“The first time we even heard about this was three weeks ago,” Jenifer Hackett, another Agua Fria resident and a member of the village association, tells SFR. “This architect got up and said they’re going to take down all the buildings, and he called the WPA building insignificant,” Hackett recalls.
Hackett says the village association immediately sought recourse. It contacted the New Mexico Historic Preservation Division, which sent a letter to SFPS asking for more information on the WPA building that currently serves as Agua Fria Elementary.
“We’re gathering more information, and we’re going to make a determination of eligibility” for state or national historic registers, Tom Drake, the division’s public relations officer, tells SFR. Drake says the state’s analysis will depend on the building’s architecture, its association with important people and its role in the community.
SFPS Superintendent Bobbie Gutierrez says the district didn’t first consult the state division in part because the building is not currently listed on any historic register.
“The adobe building has been altered so many times over the course of history that…it doesn’t seem that it will meet the criteria,” she adds.
Drake says the state will make a final determination on the building’s historic status this week.
But to village residents, historic concerns aren’t the only factor fueling an increasingly heated controversy.
“Everybody wants a good school; don’t get me wrong,” Hackett says. “But they spent something like $10 million in the last eight years; there are new buildings they totally disregarded.”
Gutierrez says that figure is “closer to $6 million.”
The total cost of renovating—or, with the state’s approval, demolishing—the Agua Fria site to make way for a much larger K-8 school is approximately $20 million, Gutierrez says. The architect in charge of the Agua Fria project has a contract of $558,628.
SFPS officials have, in public meetings, justified the need for demolition on the basis of poor conditions in the existing WPA building—some of which Mee says are valid assertions. But he also says there has been no attempt to fix at least one leak, plainly visible on the back of the building.
“I think the active plan is to let it deteriorate, and then we’ll have to build a new one,” Mee says.
Lichtenstein, too, acknowledges problems in the buildings. But she also wonders whether construction issues on a recently renovated building—Gutierrez says the last major renovation occurred in 2006—raise the question of whether SFPS can be trusted to produce better work this time.
“Einstein’s definition of insanity is to keep doing the same thing and expect a different result,” Lichtenstein tells SFR. “They’re asking the public to pretend we haven’t spent $10 or $12 million on the site. They’re saying, ‘Now, trust us.’”
School Board Member Glenn Wikle, who took office March 1, writes in an email to SFR that it’s not up to new board members to fix the errors of the past, and that the district’s new construction management team has a new set of standards that “address modern energy conservation practices and [create] high performance buildings that reduce long term operational costs.”
Construction costs are also lower now than in past years, Wikle points out, and the proposed design incorporates aspects of the old building into the new.
But in addition to village residents’ frustration with the project’s cost and the possibility of losing a historic building at the center of Agua Fria’s history—itself designated, in 1995, a “traditional historic community”—many say they weren’t involved in the architect’s planning process.
Lichtenstein, whose daughter attended Agua Fria but no longer does, says SFPS’ notification process was limited to sending home flyers with children who attend the school.
“They’re blaming the neighbors of not having been informed, but it’s their responsibility to inform people when they have a project—and not everybody who lives around the school has children in the school,” Lichtenstein says. “It’s disingenuous of them to [claim] that the public has been notified when what they did was notify a very selective, small portion of the public.”
Gutierrez says SFPS worked through the village association.
“Our understanding was that more information was going out than was actually going out,” Gutierrez says. “I’m not exactly sure where the breakdown came.”
Mee says even though he knew about the renovation project last fall, he was under the impression that SFPS would be willing to consider building a new building on another site. But during a meeting of the SFPS Citizens’ Review Committee on Sept. 8, he says, he learned that the district instead plans to demolish the WPA building.
“I got up and said, ‘What about this land-swapping thing?’” Mee recalls. “No one addressed it.”
In subsequent meetings, Mee’s attempts to voice his concerns were sometimes hamstrung by requirements that those seeking to provide input sign in ahead of time and limit their comments to two minutes.
“They’ve set up a public process that is so convoluted that it pretty much ties the hands of citizens,” Mee says.
As a result, he says, many residents didn’t realize the project involved demolition and the construction of a large gym that will block sunlight for some Agua Fria residents who live close to the school. When he raised these concerns earlier this year, Mee says, the school board and administration were unsympathetic.
“They were saying, ‘Our process is, the architect draws up all the plans, and then we run it by the community at large,’” Mee says. “The problem with that is, what if there’s changes needed? Why would you want to pay the architect twice? I appreciate that they’re trying to build a new facility and upgrade it, but it seems like we’re dancing to the beat of the architect instead of the greater community.”
Claudio Vigil, the architect on the Agua Fria project, did not return a call by press time.
But School Board Member Steven Carrillo, who also took office March 1, says notifying the public is not as simple as it may seem.
“Oftentimes, public notices are posted well in advance; meetings happen that are very poorly attended, and it’s not until a project starts to go underway that people go, ‘Holy smokes, what’s going on?’” Carrillo says. “It happens a lot of times with building around here.”
But he’s quick to acknowledge that the board should nonetheless think of better ways to involve members of the public in its decisions.
“We could have notification processes that are much more thorough,” Carrillo admits. “We are looking into that.”
The village, meanwhile, is looking into its own options.
“If it ultimately winds up with them getting sued and the construction getting stopped—” Mee begins, then pauses. “That’s not where we want to go with this,” he says.