Cover Stories

Hanging in the Balance

SFPS faces decision time as EJ Martinez Elementary School’s maintenance needs mount

Four years ago, the Santa Fe Public Schools Board of Education struck down a proposal to close and consolidate EJ Martinez, Acequia Madre and Nava Elementary schools. The decision came after droves of parents petitioned to keep the schools open, held protests and forums against the schools’ closure and packed school board meetings with signs reading “Save our schools” and “Small schools matter.”

Now, EJ Martinez’s fate once again hangs in the balance as its shrinking population and deteriorating facilities come under the district Community Review Committee’s scrutiny.

The committee, which makes recommendations about how the district spends its general obligation bonds, has asked the full school board to weigh in.

The review of EJ Martinez represents the first significant test of the school district’s “reimagining” process, a direct result of swirling turmoil about proposed closures in 2019.

The board’s action was twofold: first, it rejected former board members Maureen Cashmon and Lorraine Price’s recommended plan to shutter the three schools; next, it adopted a plan directing then-Superintendent Veronica García to “reimagine” aging facilities, declining enrollment, transfers, zoning policies and alternative curriculums to address inequity across the district.

García retired as superintendent in March 2021, but the district hired her on contract to lead the process and direct the Reimagining Steering Committee, which began its work in earnest about a year ago. According to an update delivered last spring, “reimagining” means “addressing equity, the holistic needs of students and families, with a particular focus on student engagement, the needs of our Indigenous families and students, and looking at research of best practices and national efforts.”

In August, the school board adopted the committee’s first policy recommendation on a new strategy for school closures; it requires three years of lead time to “realign” students to different schools.

And in the years that have gone by with no change, EJ’s enrollment continues to drop and its building continues to degrade.

“The roofing system is certainly at the end of its useful life, and we had to close off about 35% of the school,” district Executive Director of Operations Gabe Romero told the Community Review Committee as he showed them photos of the roof’s current condition and issued a dire report at a Sept. 20 meeting.

“The bubbling seen in some of the photos indicates the coating and roofing material are wet and no longer adhering to the roof insulation,” he tells SFR later in an interview. “There are leaks in the roof that only a roof replacement can resolve.”

The district applied the last roof coating on the school about eight years ago, he says, in hopes to get “five to six more years out of it,” but it is now deteriorating. Workers would need to remove the roof and insulation down to the deck, making an exception for the roof over the school’s gym (built in 2009). Additionally, the HVAC system, rooftop ducting and electrical conduits would need to be removed and replaced.

Fixing the building’s most immediate needs would cost an estimated $9.45 million. However, Romero says the district would need to reallocate about $11 million for the project to account for inflation and additional costs.

Those conditions led Romero to present the committee two options: Use cash from the district’s 2021 general obligation bond to fix the problem; or close the school using the district’s recently-approved realignment policy.

Even though teachers and students can’t use an entire wing of the school due to the leaky roof, classes at EJ Martinez have continued as usual because the school currently has far fewer students than the building was designed to hold. Although enrollment numbers are not yet final, EJ Martinez currently reports 156 students enrolled this year, a decline of 33 students since last year—filling just 47% of its 333-student capacity.

The plan to fix the building would allow EJ Martinez to continue operating as a small elementary school, but would expend the majority of the entire district’s remaining general obligation bond’s facility renewal funding (estimated by Romero to be about $17 million), which could delay facility renewal projects at the rest of the schools in the district until the next general obligation bond cycle in 2025.

The school didn’t benefit from bond money over the last two cycles in 2017 and 2021 because of its uncertain future, according to an earlier presentation.

If the school board decides to focus on renovating EJ Martinez rather than “realigning” its students to other schools, the building would need to close for at least a year to complete the reconstruction of the roof and HVAC system “responsibly,” Romero told the committee. If the district decides to pursue the expensive fixes, Romero says, “it doesn’t fix all the other shortfalls of the building,” which include plumbing, lighting and insulation.

Romero noted the Public Schools Finance Authority recommends a rebuild if renovation costs for a building are 60% or more than the cost to rebuild. Gene Bostwick, the district’s director of construction, estimates rebuilding EJ Martinez would cost between $12 to 15 million—a renovation cost of between 73-93% of the cost to rebuild.

Under the new policy, shuttering the school would call for a three-year grace period for students and families by stopping admissions for the earliest grades after the board makes the decision. For example, if the school board voted to close a school this year, the school would still be open through the end of the school year in June 2027. In the first year following the decision, the school would no longer enroll new kindergarten students. In the next year, the school would no longer enroll kindergarten or first-grade students. In the final year before closing, the school would only enroll students grades three and above.

García says the policy responded to parents who said they need more time when facing school closures. As students matriculate out, the strategy also “gives parents an opportunity to plan.” The decision to close a school, she says, is based on a number of reasons, with school enrollment and expensive maintenance cost being a concern of fiscal responsibility.

“We do have major shifts sometimes, in student body population, or severe declining enrollment in a particular school, but also, certain facilities become so aged, and it’s sort of like putting more resources into an old car,” she says. “You can fix one part, then another part breaks, and so on…Then we have to start looking at, ‘Are we going to build a new school here, or are we going to consolidate schools? What makes the most sense?’”

Members of the committee were reluctant to choose any of the options.

“If we were to decide that we need to look at a new facility, this can’t just happen next year,” Chairwoman Jodie Wheeler said, adding that pursuing a rebuilt school could “take up to four years just to begin construction.”

Wheeler said while she doesn’t want “to not give the school what they need,” she was concerned that putting too much of the general obligation bond money into EJ Martinez would cause maintenance delays to other elementary schools in the district.

The district would also have to consider the cost to temporarily move EJ Martinez students to another school for a one-year period during roof repairs.

Deputy Superintendent Kristy Wagner said setting up temporary portable campuses could cost upward of $1 million, and that the most cost-effective method would be to integrate the students to another school temporarily .

Ultimately, the group asked the school board to further examine and discuss EJ Martinez’s viability as a school as the next step.

Superintendent Larry “Hilario” Chavez told the school board on Oct. 12 he believes it’s important to communicate the cost and severity of the issues at the school. The new realignment policy would allow the district to speed up the timeline to one year if “safety concerns” are a factor.

He said staff would create a “roadmap” for families.

“Right now, we’ve closed off one area. It really does fit with the current enrollment, so there’s no issues there, but at some point, especially with this project, the entire roof is going to fall,” Chavez said. “[Students] are safe right now, but I think we need to really update [parents] on the issue.”

President Sarah Boses acknowledges in an interview with SFR the decision for EJ Martinez offers the board its initial opportunity to put the first product of the reimagining process to use.

“I think that what we’ve seen from both the board and the superintendent and his cabinet, is sort of thinking outside the box,” Boses says. “Close it, don’t close it—no, there’s more options than that. I think we’re really trying to have innovative approaches, and we shouldn’t pretend to know what that school community wants.”

She notes the EJ Martinez repairs would be “a big amount of money,” and didn’t want to predict what comes next.

“I think it would be really not smart of me to guess how the board’s discussion would go; I’m just one person,” she says, adding later, “[The members of the CRC] have asked for guidance from the board on how to proceed, and so the board could say something like, ‘Well, let’s survey everyone who goes to EJ, and get a pulse on what the community thinks.’ We have more questions from staff before we make any decisions. That’s what I would expect.”

Discussion solely around building and facility conditions doesn’t consider the communities surrounding those buildings, she says.

“To me, you don’t just close a school because it’s small, if everyone’s happy and they’re doing well,” Boses says. “That alone isn’t enough of a reason to close something that’s working for a lot of people—that is really beautiful and accomplishing our educational goals. We should do things in a thoughtful and caring and slow way.”

EJ Martinez Elementary first opened to the public in the fall of 1959, and many who live in the area surrounding the school on San Mateo Road today find it difficult to imagine the community without it.

Hana Patrick, who has taught art classes at EJ Martinez for the past three years, describes her experience there as “open and welcoming,” and says she’s found the school to be “a great place to grow and develop as an educator.”

Patrick tells SFR she didn’t initially set out to be an educator; her passion for working with the kids came after she volunteered to chaperone on school field trips. She later began working as a substitute teacher.

“The culture [at EJ] is very supportive, everyone is very connected,” Patrick says.

For example, one of Patrick’s students who had transferred out of EJ Martinez came back later this year, and recently showed her appreciation for her art teacher through a project where she and her classmates had to design their own robots.

“She wouldn’t let me see her picture the whole time…finally, at the end of class she brought it over to me and she had painted a picture of me as a robot,” Patrick laughs. “It was fun and quirky, she had captured all these great little details about me. That just made my day.”

Patrick, who also serves on the Community Review Committee, says in future school years, she hopes to continue to help “embody the authentic school culture” at EJ Martinez.

School district spokesman Cody Dynarski sat in on SFR’s interview with Patrick and barred her from answering SFR’s questions about the fate of the school or her role on the committee, but she has said in committee meetings that the district needs a further-developed strategy for addressing the building’s needs. The district also refused to grant an interview with the school principal and did not respond to SFR’s request to tour the building.

Files from the Fray Angelico History Archive downtown give an overview of the school’s early years. Its namesake, EJ Martinez, was the postmaster of Santa Fe at the time of the school’s opening and had previously been a long-serving teacher in Lamy.

The school was frequently noted for its innovations and heavily involved community—a 1966 article demonstrated students learning to use typewriters and a 1984 feature focused on a science teacher keeping a menagerie of classroom pets for the students, to name a few.

The debate around waning enrollment on Santa Fe’s north side and overcrowding in the south heated up in the 1980s. Acequia Madre and Tesuque elementary schools were both slated for closure in the years leading up to 1985, but consistent community support kept them open through the present despite low enrollment.

An October 1989 report by the Santa Fe New Mexican comparing school populations listed EJ Martinez as having 434 students, and said the school had “the best educational reputation in the Santa Fe Public Schools, and other principals cite Martinez when describing how bright children of affluent parents perform scholastically.” The report also highlighted the community’s fundraising ability, with parents raising more than $20,000 for the school in 1989—likely due to the school’s families being “pretty upper-middle class,” the story notes.

Beverley Fornaciari tells SFR her children had positive experiences attending EJ Martinez in the mid-to-late 1990s. She’s a teacher at Salazar Elementary and still lives in the family home just blocks away from the school.

“I haven’t been inside [EJ] in a long time, but I just can’t help but have a really nice camaraderie,” Fornaciari says, adding, “[My children] loved it. It’s always been a really great school, a sweet little school.”

Genesis Cazares, a parent who recently enrolled her two children at EJ Martinez after moving her family to the South Capitol area of Santa Fe from Texas, tells SFR she has “only heard good comments” from her children about their fellow students, teachers and the 21st Century after-school program they attend.

“I have no problems with that school at all,” Cazares says. “The people there really welcome you; there’s no judgment, ever since I first went to that school.”

Since 2016, the school board has repeatedly proposed to close EJ Martinez, angering parents and teachers of the school and creating a predictable cycle of canceling the plan when people show up to school board meetings to oppose the school’s closure—only for it to be brought back on the table every few years.

Academically, EJ Martinez has not been performing at or above district averages in the past several years. According to a 2021-2022 report on standardized tests, EJ Martinez students had an English and language arts proficiency rate of 29% overall, and a 20% math proficiency rate overall, hovering beneath district averages of 34% and 23%, respectively.

Additionally, in the 2017-2018 school year, it received a C under the Public Education Department’s former A-F grading system, with the district report cards going back to 2012 consistently marking EJ Martinez with a C or a D in school quality.

Those data points led Susanna Maurice to enroll her son in preschool at the Santa Fe School for the Arts and Sciences across town instead of EJ, which is walking distance from their home.

“I’m very sad about what we ended up doing. It would be really nice to have him go there, but I just kind of heard it’s not the strongest school, so he likely won’t go there,” Maurice says.

But for others, the numbers aren’t the whole story.

Jocelma Rendleman was among parents who advocated in 2019 against EJ’s proposed closure when her sons were attending the school. She tells SFR both sons, who are now middle and high school, “loved it. On almost no day did they miss school.”

She still feels strongly about the school’s importance to the community, and has lived only a few blocks away from the building for the past several years.

“We fought so they leave the school open, and we would again,” Rendleman says. “It’s nice to have a school here, so [the district] can find another way to earn money instead of closing.”

While García sees the realignment policy as a major step forward for the reimagining process, she says it is only a small part of what the Reimagining Steering Committee is planning for the district.

“You’ll continue to see policies and recommendations continue to trickle,” she says. “We hope to have the bulk of at least these priorities to the board no later than the early part of April [2024], as they will be working on budget and staffing recommendations.”

Outside of studying school facilities, a major part of the reimagining process will focus on middle school. García says the schools hope to increase student engagement at the middle school level through magnet and specialty programs, which is one of the steering committee’s main focuses this school year, along with equitable transportation for school zone transfer students.

For now, EJ Martinez’s fate is in the hands of the school board. Board Member Sascha Anderson suggested Oct. 12 that Chavez and his staff meet with teachers, staff and community members to better inform them of the school’s mounting facility and enrollment issues.

“I would hate for this to be a situation where we’re just talking about the roof, and not talking about the whole picture,” Anderson said. “When there is a dearth of information, people insert their own information, and it is often worst-case scenario information. I think that there’s a way that we can move forward on EJ in a way that honors the community and honors our commitment as board members and our commitment as a district to educating students.”

Board Member Kate Noble also expressed that while she understands urgency, she hopes the situation can be resolved in congruence with the reimagining process.

“We really need to work to integrate this into some of the thinking and work we’ve been doing on the big picture,” Noble said.

Principal Angelique Armijo-Ortiz refused an in-person interview for this story, but tells SFR via email that her priority is on the students she already works with day-to-day.

“I am focusing on the things I can control,” Armijo-Ortiz writes. “For right now, my focus is continuing student growth for this school year.”

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