Voters overwhelmingly rejected Albuquerque Public Schools’ (APS) two mill levy questions and a proposed bond that would have raised real property tax bills by 5%.
According to media reports, all three questions on the ballot failed by wide margins.
Had all three initiatives past, they would have generated $900 million for APS over the next 6 years to help execute its full capital master plan.
APS operates 142 schools consisting of 4 K-8 schools, 88 elementary schools (K through 8th grade), 27 middle schools (6-8 th grades), 21 high schools (9-12th grades) and 2 alternative schools serving 84,000 students which is more than 25% of New Mexico’s school population.
The average age of an APS school is 50 years old and in need of repairs, improvements, remodeling or even demolition and construction of new facilities.
APS wanted to use money generated by the property tax toward the design and construction of 11 new projects and the completion of 23 major rebuilds and upgrades to 23 school campuses.
The capital monies were budgeted to provide startup monies for renovation projects targeting aging campuses in historic neighborhoods, like La Mesa Elementary School.
$20 million was to be used for much needed school security upgrades in response to APS needing to upgrade safety measures in response to the rash of incidents of gun violence on school grounds across the country, including New Mexico.
The $20 million in security funding would have provided for new locks for every classroom, security vestibule entrances, upgraded camera security with a district-wide central monitoring center, and to build protective perimeter fencing for school campuses.
The first mill levy was for continued maintenance of existing facilities.
The first mill levy would not have raised taxes but it would have continued the existing tax levy that will now expire after six years.
The first mill levy was voted down by 64%.
The failure to pass the first mill levy will probably devastate the maintenance efforts at many of the older schools.
The second tax mill levy question was voted down by 69%.
The bond funding was voted down by 58%.
Normally, turn out for an APS elections is 3% to 5%.
The election was a “mail in ballot” and the voter turnout for it was 28.7%.
The defeat of all 3 measures plunges the APS capital master plan into a sea of uncertainty.
APS Executive Director Kizito Wijenje of the school systems capital master plan described the APS capital funding situation the day after the defeat of the mill levy and bond package as a “Rubik’s Cube”.
STATE’S AND CITY’S PUBLIC EDUCATION CRISIS
On Friday, July 20, 2018, Santa Fe District Court Judge Sarah Singleton ruled that the state of New Mexico is violating the constitutional rights of at-risk students by failing to provide them with a sufficient education.
The Judge found that it was clear that many New Mexico students are not receiving the basic education in reading, writing and math they should be receiving in our public-school system.
The Santa Fe District Court found that in New Mexico 71.6% of the state’s public-school students come from low-income families.
As a matter of law, Judge Singleton wrote the “lack of funds is not a defense to providing constitutional rights” and found:
“[The evidence presented at trial] proves that the vast majority of New Mexico’s at-risk children finish each school year without the basic literacy and math skills needed to pursue post-secondary education or a career. … Indeed, overall New Mexico children rank at the very bottom in the country for educational achievement. … The at-risk students are still not attaining proficiency at the rate of non-at-risk students … and the programs being lauded by [the Public Education Department] are not changing this picture.”
In response to the court ruling Governor Michelle Lujan’s proposed budget calls for $3.2 BILLION to be spent on Public Schools, an 18% increase of $830.2 million.
The New Mexico Legislative Finance Committee (LFC) budget plan for its part increased year-over-year state spending by $670.8 million, or by 10.6%, with more than three-fifths of the additional spending toward public schools statewide.
Albuquerque Public Schools (APS) is New Mexico’s largest school district, serving more than 25% of the state’s students with nearly 84,000 students.
The ethnicity of the APS 84,000 students is 65.8% Hispanic, 22.9% Caucasian/White, 5.5% American Indian,3.2% African American, 2.3% Asian American, 0.2% are “other”.
Over two thirds of APS students qualify for the federal school meals program.
The school district serves 29,000 breakfast per school day and 41,000 lunches per school day.
On Jun 26, 2018, it was reported by the 2018 Kids Count Data Book that for the first time in five years, New Mexico has fallen to last among states when it comes to the economic, educational and medical well-being of its children, according to a nonprofit that tracks the status of children in the United Sates.
In educational measures, the report says 75% of the state’s fourth-graders were not proficient in reading in 2017, compared to 65% nationally, and 80% of eighth-graders were not performing up to par in math in 2017, compared to 67% across the U.S.
Education Week’s annual Quality Counts report on United State Public Education systems throughout the nation put New Mexico next to last out of 50 states and the District of Columbia in January, 2018.
COMMENTARY AND ANALYSIS
The overwhelming defeat of the two property tax initiatives and the one bond initiative is very disappointing but was not at all surprising to political observers.
The failure of all 3 APS measures is a major setback to the single largest school district in the state and one of the largest in the country.
With the defeat of all 3 APS measures, there is considerable gloating going on by the “anti-tax” people and groups.
Gloating was exhibited by the ultra-conservative Rio Grande Foundation Paul Gessing, who spearheaded the opposition, when he boasted about the vote and said:
“It’s a great day for the taxpayers of the APS district, and I think it’s clear that APS overreached on this particular tax hike proposal”.
Truth is Paul Gessing and his ultra-conservative Rio Grande Foundation have never seen any tax hike they have supported and for years have been consistent critics of public education institutions always harping that the institutions are a waste of taxpayer money.
Gessing and his Rio Grande Foundation went so far to advocate that APS sell off its assets as a way of raising money, which is a one time revenue source when a recurring revenue sources are needed for repairs and maintenance of school facilities.
It may have been a great day for property owners and the Rio Grande Foundation saving money, but a very sad day for those who really matter, the students of APS.
Albuquerque Public School Board Member Peggy Muller-Aragón, the only APS Board member who opposed the APS initiatives, applauded the defeat of the initiatives saying she was not at all surprised by the vote.
Muller-Aragón took a cheap shot in her gloating when she said she believed voters knew what they were voting for when they voted “no” and “wanting better accountability and for prioritizing students over unions”, an obvious reference to the teacher’s union that supported the measures.
Mueller Aragon was quoted as saying APS was not “in check with reality. … We’re a poor state … The ask [in property tax increase] – from what I heard – was just so big.”
Contrary to the truth Mueller-Argaon said that “we’re a poor state” the truth also is “lack of funds is not a defense to providing constitutional rights” to an education as was found by Judge Singleton.
In other words, the money to fund public education must be found or generated somewhere and is usually through taxation.
Republican Albuquerque City Councilor Don Harris called upon his constituents to vote against the initiatives, the same Don Harris that supported spending taxpayer money on the disastrous ART Bus project without a public vote.
Republican Party Chairman Steve Pearce at the last minute called the mail in ballot initiative “deeply flawed” as if to say the Republican party would contest the results if the measures past.
What was very disappointing is that Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller took no position on, did not endorse, and was nowhere to be found on any of the 3 APS ballot measures.
When Keller was running for Mayor, he advocated city taxpayer funding for afterschool programs and city security funding for the schools.
The city and APD provides for police security at the schools in addition to APS’s own police force.
Keller did find the time to go to Santa Fe and have a photo op with students to promote gun purchase background checks, but said nothing about the $20 million included in the APS special election needed by APS for school security upgrades in response to the rash of incidents of gun violence on school grounds across the country.
No one should forget that Mayor Tim Keller himself broke a campaign promise not to raise gross receipts taxes unless there was a public vote and signed a $55 million a year tax increase signing with no public vote, but he was nowhere to be found when it came to the APS initiatives.
Public schools need tax funding for maintenance and repairs as much as the city needs funding for city services and Mayor Keller should have supported the the APS measures.
APS for some time has been a troubled public education district.
The APS Board of Education and the APS administration will now be forced to come up with a detail plan on how to deal with the inevitable shortfall of funding in the school district’s operational fund that will no doubt affect or halt the 23 projects that are already underway at schools in the district.
No doubt big factors that contributed to the defeat of the initiatives is the very real public perception that the elected Albuquerque Public School (APS) Board and the APS Administration is viewed as wasting taxpayer money and resources on projects and facilities that are not needed and that do not help students.
Another common public perception is that the APD Administration is top heavy with management being paid enormous salaries and that there is extensive waste of resources by them.
A hard reality that contributed to the defeat of the initiatives is that people want and even demand quality public education and facilities, but no one wants to pay higher property taxes for them.
Many taxpayers feel that taxes are already way too high, even though the county’s property taxes are in fact some of the lowest in the country.
Notwithstanding the defeat of the initiatives, APS Administration and the APS School Board cannot forget what happened in the special election nor the real problems facing the students they serve.
The disconnect between the voters and APS is now complete.
The elected APS Board, including APS Board Member Peggy Muller-Aragón, needs to take steps to repair the damage or step aside if they are not up to the challenge.
In the meantime, the aging APS facilities will continue to deteriorate until the elected APS board and management regain public confidence.
The APS Board could ask voters to vote again on an APS tax increase in the next election, but if they do, they need to do a far better job of educating the public and justify why the money is needed and where it will go to benefit the students.
The landslide loss perhaps is a lesson learned for the APS elected school board and the APS Administration, but it was at the expense of the students in need of a quality education in modern, safe and secured facilities.
The APS Board and the APS Administration must teach the lesson next time around that taxes are the tuition we must pay to have an educated child.
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