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 V.14 No.4 | January 27 - February 2, 2005 

Ortiz y Pino

School Election Without a Ripple

Public schools deserve voter support

It seems incredible, but the election to choose four Albuquerque Public School board positions and to decide the fate of a proposed $218 million bond issue and mill levy to pay for building new schools and repairing existing ones takes place on Feb. 1.

Based on the amount of press coverage this crucial matter has been receiving, I thought we had months before having to go to the polls. Wrong.

Four and then again two years ago, the Albuquerque school board elections were front page news, noisy, contentious and vigorous battles for voter support. Perhaps it was because the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce had jumped into local school board politics in a big way and was gleaning page after page of coverage about that involvement, especially in the Albuquerque Journal.

(Curious aside: Do you ever find yourself thinking of the Journal, as I often do, as an in-house public relations organ for the chamber, blindly reprinting its press releases rather than functioning the way bona fide newspapers do—you know, asking tough questions, doing independent research and probing for uncomfortable answers? Oh, never mind—what was I thinking?)

In contrast, this year's race is rapidly drawing to a close with nary a peep from the chamber, not a word on television newscasts and only perfunctory newspaper coverage. Perhaps having reformed education once and for all the chamber and its house organ have now moved on to health care, planned growth strategies and electing a pro-business mayor.

For the rest of us, however, the school elections still ought to be higher profile than the occasional page seven feature stories and the endorsements-pulled-from-a-hat editorial we'll be treated to right before voting closes.

The only two substantive concerns that have hit the printed page at all during this campaign are the report of fiscal laxity in the oversight of school building projects issued by a citizen committee which took a look at the issue, and the vaguely defined yen to chop APS up into several "more manageably-sized" districts, a hankering endorsed by current school board member Robert Lucero (who continues to hope he will someday find someone on the board willing to second his motions).

We have, of course, at the same time been dished a mountain of overly-florid newspaper coverage devoted to two completely minuscule and marginal teapot tempests about the schools which enjoy life completely independent of the election: sex education and creationism.

These are classic hot stories for newspapers to cover. They each break the world neatly into two warring factions; they each fire the emotions and suppress the thinking of many readers and neither issue has much to do with the real-world daily classroom experience of teachers and students. But they damn-sure do sell papers.

So, because so much press attention is wasted on those non-issues, the fate of our school's capital projects and the makeup of the next Albuquerque board of education will probably be decided by the tiny minority of registered voters who will bother to inform themselves; in other words, teachers, school employees and their families.

And to tell you the truth, I think they deserve to be the tiny slice of the electorate that makes the decisions. At least they know what's happening on the campuses.

There are two very strong reasons to support the $218 million in school construction that has been proposed for the next two years.

First, the need is enormous. Leapfrog growth on the western fringes of town means thousands of young families with school age children are living miles away from adequate classrooms. To meet that need, APS wants to build another Westside high school and two new Westside elementary schools, one north of I-40 and one south of it.

But secondarily, there is another $53 million in capital outlay money from the state that could be added to the pot ... if the voters approve the bond issue. So we in effect will be paying for only 80 percent of the full package of projects—a very good deal for taxpayers.

There is an incumbent running for each of the four positions on the school board. I have watched this board in action over the past few years and I think we are fortunate to have so many hard-working, principled and open citizens willing to put in the time to make APS operate smoothly. All four incumbents who are standing for re-election, Mary Lee Martin, Paula Maes, Gordon Rowe and Berna Facio deserve to be retained.

I am very nervous about the calls to split the district into two or more smaller entities. El Paso has four or five school districts; Denver has several and Phoenix has over a dozen. What happens in each of those localities is that competition for the best teachers and administrators creates a bidding war, and the less affluent parts of town wind up unable to hold onto the best teachers and the best principals. It creates a lot of duplication and unnecessary expense.

Until someone demonstrates the wisdom of acting otherwise to us, we should keep our system united.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.

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