Don't get me wrong. I'm not against portable classrooms. They get you outdoors for some fresh air. They have that trailer-park charm. They're great places to hide under if you need to get away. But 57 on one campus? That's how many portables belong to Edward Gonzales Elementary on the southwest mesa.
The school was built for around 750 kids, but on the day it opened in the fall of last year 1,000 kids showed up. School officials say zone changes increasing density in the last few years have set the school up for a future of sardine-like conditions for Westside tykes. The moment voters funded the school in the 2003 bond election, the city's Environmental Planning Commission approved over a dozen zone changes for new housing development in the area from 10-12 DU per acre to 18 DU per acre, increasing the number of houses and children you can squeeze into each lot. It has 1,100 kids now and would have more like 1,250 if not for APS busing kids to nearby Painted Sky Elementary.
If they survive the standing room-only education at Edward Gonzales and other Westside elementary and middle schools, what do these youngsters have to look forward to? The very good possibility of being bussed from West Mesa or Cibola high schools—both overcrowded—to schools with declining populations east of the river, like Albuquerque High and Del Norte.
So how did this happen? The number of students in APS is fairly steady at about 85,000. However, from 1995 to 2000 APS saw about an 8 percent decline in the student population. At the same time, student population growth in the northwest quadrant of the city saw an increase of 3-5 percent. In the southwest quadrant (where Edward Gonzales Elementary sits), student growth is closer to 5-8 percent per year. The southwest mesa is where most young families can afford their first new home with zero-down deals and mortgage payments that are less than the rent of an average two-bedroom apartment.
Still, 75 percent of the student population remains east of river. APS has built about 10 new schools in the last eight years--most of them on the Westside. So why have we added thousands of square feet of new school capacity? Simply, to keep up with new housing growth west of the river, even as student population growth east of the river is declining. Meanwhile, the old schools are left with fewer students and fewer resources to fix what they have. That means that unless a health and safety need exists (e.g. fixing the heating or air conditioning), then existing schools like Albuquerque High have to wait to replace their 30-year-old gym floor.
In the debate over how to pay for these new schools, the options have boiled down to: a) raise property taxes, b) ask the state for more help or c) keep cramming kids into overcrowded schools and when teachers run out of hallways in which to teach classes, just add a few more portables. Let's take a look at the feasibility of these options.
Option A: Raising taxes by 2 percent would equal about $50 per year for a home worth $170,000. That's on top of the $400 a year they already pay for schools. Most school board members are scared to propose such a tax in the upcoming February bond election.
Option B: Asking the state for more help seems like a painless solution. However, even Gov. Bill Richardson's promise of $25 million for a new Westside high school will come at the expense of the millions that APS gets from legislative pork every session. Almost every Albuquerque area legislator uses part of his or her $500,000 to $1 million average set-aside in capital outlay for a neighborhood school library, computers, new portables, new gym floor, etc.
Option C: Continuing to cram kids into overcrowded Westside schools is an option--but only if our community has completely given up on public education. Westside parents won't stand for it much longer (with the possible exception of those struggling single mothers on the southwest mesa who don't have time to go vote much less attend school board meetings).
But there is another option. Option D: Ask housing developers to chip in for part of the cost of building new schools.
Many major cities—like Denver and San Diego—have figured out that unless developers pay part of the cost of new schools, families in fast-growing parts of the city are left to fend for themselves.
The blamestorming is rampant. Developers say APS is incompetent and has not kept up with growth in the city. APS officials say they don't have the resources to keep up with growth. Older citizens and those in parts of the city where schools already exist say, “Why are we paying to build new schools?”
The real question is: Who should pay? Should it be citizens who live next door to existing schools who are watching their neighborhood student body get smaller and their schools get more run-down, even as their property taxes go up? Or should it be homebuilders who in their own marketing talk about the great Westside schools? Should it be parents who are forced to drive their kids across town because their local Westside school is overcrowded, or high school students turned candy-peddlers who have to sell chocolates and tchockes to pay for a new gym floor at their old high school? Or should it be the industry that is benefiting most from the city's westward expansion?
Even though the development community knows that schools sell houses, for the last several years it has fought attempts to amend the State Development Fees Act to allow cities to charge impact fees for new schools. The Act currently allows cities to charge developers impact fees for police and fire stations, parks, roads, and open space. Instead of sticking it to taxpayers by raising taxes or sticking it to kids by forcing them to cram into overcrowded schools or be bused across town—here's a novel idea—make developers chip in for the cost of new schools.
Why should the centerpiece of any neighborhood—its local school—be somehow treated differently than roads, police and fire stations, and parks? Where we educate our children should be at the physical—and political—center of our community.
Senator Dede Feldman and House Speaker Ben Lujan have sponsored legislation that would allow municipalities, at their own decision, to charge impact fees for new school construction. In the upcoming legislative session, let's hope that developers will support our local schools by supporting legislation to add schools to the list of items needed to help build a community. It's time we made schools a priority in building a community--not an afterthought. No number of portables is going to solve this problem.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.