Nava Elementary School students celebrated Veterans Day on Monday by marching in the parade downtown in honor of the school's namesake, Francis X Nava, the first Santa Fean to die in the Vietnam War. Later, Nava's brother, Raymond Nava, stood with the students as they somberly lowered the flag.
Relief that the small elementary school will stay open added an extra dose of emotion to the day, Principal Marc Ducharme tells SFR. Last Wednesday, the school board voted 3-2 against a proposal by board member Maureen Cashmon to close and consolidate Nava and two other small elementary schools on the northeast side of town, EJ Martinez and Acequia Madre.
The vote marked the third time in three years the school board has discussed closing EJ and Nava, and the second time in a decade the board has considered closing Acequia Madre.
Changing demographics across the city, budgetary woes and the lack of effective guidelines around school closures drive the vicious cycle. It also highlights the outcome of decades of decision-making about which schools are maintained and which are not.
The schools targeted last week were on the list for potential closure primarily because of their aging facilities and declining enrollment.
"I don't think the issue is going to go away," Cashmon tells SFR. "We've got a limited budget, and as long as our student population continues to decline, we will have too many seats and at some point schools will have to close."
Many parents at the meeting expressed outrage that the three affected principals didn't learn about the proposed closures until the agenda was publicly posted five days before the vote.
Yet Cashmon says the proposal was a signal of her frustration at the perpetual delay that repeated studies and involvement periods entail.
"I don't think the community is listening," she says, explaining that the issue was postponed in 2017 after a vote in favor of further review, and was postponed again in 2018 to wait for the outcomes of the Yazzie Martinez lawsuit and the policy changes made by incoming governor Michelle Lujan Grisham.
Many parents saw the action rather as a last-ditch effort by Cashmon to push her agenda before she gives up her seat to board member-elect Sarah Koch Boses in January.
EJ and Nava's buildings are in need of serious improvements. That's because these schools have been historically overlooked when it came to allocating bond funds for capital improvement projects, according to lawyer Heather Burke, one of the more than 60 people who appealed to the board to oppose the closure plan. She says demographics matter in the conversation.
"Atalaya got millions to rebuild their school despite the fact that they have some of the highest numbers of interzone transfers in the district," she says. "It also is one of the schools that serve the greatest number of wealthy and white students. Meanwhile, Nava has never seen significant improvements and has the greatest number of disadvantaged students such as homeless students, and English-as-a-second-language learners."
All Nava students qualify for the free and reduced lunch program.
Burke argues that past board decisions arbitrarily favored some schools over others and could make the school district liable in litigation for discriminatory practices.
Fred Nathan, the founder of local Think New Mexico, says the think tank concludes that closing small schools now could further problems. The organization's research found that nationally, smaller schools produce better results in student performance and teacher satisfaction, especially among at-risk student populations. Nathan fears parents with means will choose smaller private schools over larger public schools, and teachers with mobility will choose jobs elsewhere.
Nava principal Ducharme says no set guidelines are in play to reassure parents that board members are making unbiased decisions.
"There needs to be an established protocol," he says. This isn't the first time he's dealt with school closures. Before this job, Ducharme was principal of De Vargas Middle School when the district consolidated two schools into the new Milagro Middle School.
He says the district lacks consistency or method in choosing when and how to close schools. And this is part of the reason, in his opinion, that the cycle of closure threats just keeps spinning, leaving parents feeling outraged and officials undecided.
Ideally, Ducharme would like to see a moratorium on all school closures for long enough to come up with alternative solutions to closing schools and a set of consistent guidelines for cases when closures are deemed unavoidable.
This is one outcome he hopes emerges from board President Kate Noble's proposal for a study on equity in the district. The board adopted the idea the same night it rejected the closure plan.
Noble, who voted against Cashmon's closure plan, isn't convinced small schools are always better. She's also not convinced closing the northside small schools will solve the long-term problems in the district or make the public education system more equitable.
"We have never in a detailed and representative way … surveyed our families and staff about what's important to them, what builds community, what their needs are in our schools," Noble tells SFR. Instead, past surveys have always been conducted "in an incredibly traditional way" that relies solely on data about the capacity and improvement costs of specific schools under consideration for potential closure.
Noble says now is the time to start thinking creatively about what needs to change.
"We are not in a budget crisis right now … I think we have the space to do this," she tells SFR. "To me, this is an opportunity to really reconnect to public education."
The board tasked the office of the superintendent with devising a framework and process for the study, which will be presented to the new board in February. In addition to Bose, Carmen Linda Gonzales also joins the board, taking the seat from Stephen Carillo, who voted against the closure plan.