Virtually identical photos graced the front pages of both Albuquerque dailies one day last week. In each, members of a middle school student orchestra sawed away diligently at their music while seated on metal folding chairs in a vast meadow of native grasses.
The open space of the West Mesa spread toward the distant horizon behind the musicians in a grand sweep of nature unmarred by the presence of even a single structure, vehicle or power line. The faint outline of our miniature volcanoes vaguely punctuated the skyline west toward the Rio Puerco; nothing else but long grasses bowing in the gentle breeze filled the frame.
The event was the Albuquerque Public Schools' kickoff for the construction of the much-ballyhooed new Northwest Mesa High School. The one-hundred-million-dollar Northwest Mesa High School.
Crews will start moving earth for the project in March. Classes for 800 ninth graders will begin on the campus in August of 2007, even as construction continues for the rest of the complex. Eventually, 2,500 high school students will attend. A second new high school of similar size (and price tag) will be built on the Southwest Mesa, with work slated for startup next year.
Those newspaper photographs won't get out of my mind. We are not just building two new (I'm told they are badly needed) high schools out there near the volcanoes. We are also very deliberately and with full understanding of the consequences opening up vast new stretches of vacant land for developers' enrichment.
“Sprawl” is not a pretty word. If you pepper your dialogue with it, you'll quickly be reprimanded for being “anti-growth” and will earn lectures about how important the construction industry is to the economic life of our city.
But there is no other word suitable for describing APS' decision to build on the fringe of existing development, and the subsequent impact that decision will have on Albuquerque. They are fostering sprawl. And the consequences will be enormous. It will change the way of life in Albuquerque for many decades.
APS, of course, was damned either way. If they had refused to build out where Paseo del Norte will soon slice through the Petroglyphs, they would have been accused of being bad planners, of locating their schools too far away from where people are building. And at least on the fringe they got the land in an exchange with the State Land Office for comparatively cheap prices.
It was, for the schools, a reasonable business decision. The governor's intrusion into the process through a unilateral announcement of his support for the site and his offer to pick up almost half of the cost with state monies simply made the deal too sweet to walk away from.
So I'm not discussing this issue to heap condemnation on a school board or a superintendent trying to cope with out-of-whack growth patterns in this community. They have made a reasonable, if very short-term, consideration based on the specific needs of their own institution. The fact that it will ultimately further distort how Albuquerque develops, however, is unavoidable.
In building on the West Mesa, APS will have to extend utility lines, streets, sewers. Those extensions will make feasible the construction of even more homes out on that sea of buffalo grass. Those homes will in turn spawn the need for yet another high school (our first two-hundred-million-dollar school?) a few miles further west—which will enable more construction, the need for additional schools, more homes, etc.
The real reason the city is extending Paseo through the Petroglyphs is the same reason APS is building the new school out at the end of that extension. Growth. Each public body is making a defensible decision. Not coincidentally, however, those “sound” decisions will further enrich a handful of already wealthy developers, builders and architects—and will wind up costing the sap citizens of the rest of the town an enormous amount of tax money to do so.
That tax money could be far more wisely used than in what often appears to be a determined effort to stamp out meadows and replace them with Phoenix suburbs.
One last thought about the matched pair of one-hundred-million-dollar high schools on which we are about to blow our money: They are infuriating to the rest of the state.
Do you know how many schools any other district could build for that amount? At a construction cost of $40,000 per student who will attend, this is an incredible boondoggle. If the Animas or Mora schools asked for $4 million of taxpayer money to build a school for 100 students, we'd all turn livid.
That sort of extravagance is apparently reserved only for the Albuquerque schools.
The Zuni lawsuit settlement of last year means that from now on all public school construction expenditures in the state are supposed to be done in an equitable fashion, the money coming out of an equalization formula that everyone has agreed to. The Northwest Mesa School shoots that formula all to heck.
If I lived in Mora or Animas I'd be real upset, too. Why does Albuquerque deserve two Cadillacs and everyone else has to make do with Yugos?
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.