Santa Fe's  public school district needs more small schools—not less—if it truly wants to equitably meet the needs of all of its students, says Think New Mexico's Founder and Executive Director Fred Nathan. Closing small schools like those in the proposal tabled by Santa Fe Public Schools last year is almost always presented as a money-saving measure, but Nathan believes the district can save more by looking at very different kinds of cuts.

In 2008, Think New Mexico published two policy reports about schools. One favored maintaining and creating more small schools in the state, citing research from across the country to argue that small schools are better at meeting the emotional and academic needs of students.  The second report looked at how districts could allocate more money to the classroom by cutting central administrative costs.

SFR looked at a dozen studies that have been published since to see whether the direction of the national conversation has changed. Some studies found no correlation between school size and likelihood to succeed in school and in life, and some small school advocates, such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, have stopped their small school initiatives in the last decade.  But the majority of the studies still found that academic performance goes down as school size goes up, and that violence and teen suicide is more common at larger schools.

Tonight, the Santa Fe Public School Board's Citizen's Review Board will meet at 6pm at 610 Alta Vista Street to discuss the details of a planned equity study that school board members voted for in November as an alternative to once again closing schools. As the district begins to seriously consider "reimagining" the public school system in Santa Fe, SFR spoke with Nathan about what he thinks the district should look at to more effective and equitably serve all students.

SFR: What aspects from the 2008 reports do you think are still most relevant to the conversation today, and why do you think small schools are better?

Fred Nathan: We don't think we should be closing any schools in any part of the city. And instead, we think they should be building smaller schools on the south side and redistributing the population in the other parts of the city by redrawing the boundaries so that every student can attend a school of 400 students or less.

When you say that students generally do better in smaller schools, that doesn't mean that every large school is terrible. And it doesn't mean that every small school is terrific. But based on the research, on balance, students have a higher probability of success when they're learning in small environments, especially when they come from disadvantaged backgrounds. …The problem with how we've organized our schools since the 1940s is that we've done it based on the factory model. And if kids were widgets, that would be the right model. But because they are individuals with feelings and emotions, they don't do well in these conveyor belt environments.

Did you look specifically at how this plays out in Santa Fe?

We looked at it nationally and in New Mexico as the state. Not Santa Fe. But there's absolutely no reason why this research that applies to kids everywhere in the country wouldn't also be true in Santa Fe.

You say that we should be building more small schools on the Southside and keeping the northside small schools open, but how could the district pay for that?

It turns out when you look at individual school budgets, on average, about 80% goes to faculty salaries and benefits. So it stands to reason if you move school kids from school A to school B, the teachers are going to come with the students because they still want to keep class sizes the same, meaning that the district doesn't actually save that much in operating budget by closing schools…

Where the district should really look for savings is in the central administrative office. Districts potentially have thousands of dollars of unexamined savings that could come from administrative cuts.

What about for the cost of buildings themselves?

If you're just looking at what's the cost to build a school for, you know, 1,000 elementary school students versus 400, no question it's cheaper to build them big than to build small on a per capita basis. But again, you have to think about what's the purpose of the school—do we want them to perform at a higher level?

If you judge schools based on their graduation rates, so this has to do with high schools…the cost per graduate is actually far less at smaller schools. In elementary, students are more likely to feel supported and engaged. Santa Fe is a district that has enormous property tax resources. We really can afford to build slightly more expensive, smaller schools here because we have this enormous capacity.

We’re talking here about the difference between property taxes and operating capital, which are essentially two totally different pools of money. But this is really complicated for a lot of people to understand and it brings up this question of, you know, we live in a town with so much wealth, why can’t we afford to pay our teachers. Can you dig into this a little bit?

Property taxes versus operating budget, it's like church and state—there are very rigid rules and under state law you can't mix these capital streams at all. Property taxes are used to pay for building expenses, and can't be used to supplement the operating capital, which is the money that comes from the state. So technically you can't use property taxes to pay your teacher salaries.

Here in Santa Fe, we are property tax rich and operating capital poor.

We should be looking at ways to use the property taxes to generate money for the operating budget. The best example of this, which is something the district's done a very good job of, is to use the property tax to put up more solar panels. That reduces our electricity costs, which is an operating expense. So now dollars that used to go to paying the electricity bill can go to teacher salaries.

Okay so, to cut operating costs, you say we should look at administration. But you’re not talking about nurses or coaches, you’re pretty much talking about everyone who works for the superintendent, is that right?

I'm so glad you brought that up. Yes, we are talking about central office administrators, not about coaches and nurses. Based on national research in terms of who contributes most to student performance, it's teachers and principals, then faculty such as coaches, counselors, nurses…

But many districts can shrink their administrative positions by quite a large percent and still be just as effective. There are many positions that have become obsolete due to changes within the school system and updates in technology, for example. Then there's reporting costs and contractual services that can drain a ton of the budget.

When we are looking at the limited resources what we need to do is shrink administrative expenses and take those resources and push them down to the school sites and to the classrooms where they're most needed. And there are districts in New Mexico that do that. In 2008 we looked at some of the districts that are highest performing to see what they had in common, such as Gadsden, and Farmington, or this tiny rural agricultural district called Texico—and one thing we found is they spend a much higher percentage of their money the classrooms than the state average and spend less on administration.