Mayor Martin Chavez is a man on a mission. That mission: to stop spending taxpayer money on after-school programs such as the teddy bear club.
It's part of an evaluation of the way Albuquerque Public Schools (APS) spends $1,576,000 a year on its after-school programs. “I'm not spending taxpayers' money anymore on doll sharing, on [the] teddy bear club, jump rope,” Chavez said at a Saturday, July 8, news conference.
The teddy bear club has become a catchphrase, a figurative punching bag for the administration, which is using the club as a prime example of what the mayor calls wasted funds.
For 11 years, Linda Hansen has led the teddy bear club at Madison Middle School, largely as a volunteer, in addition to her teaching duties. On Wednesday afternoons, students meet to sew bears that are later donated to Carrie Tingley Hospital, a children's hospital. The bears are also donated to the Metropolitan domestic dispute courtroom so kids have something to occupy their attention while their parents are in court.
The benefits, Hansen says, are innumerable. “The purpose I have with students is to connect their learning with a life skill,” she says. They learn to read patterns, to measure, to develop a materials budget, to follow verbal instructions, in addition to knowing their work has a real-world application, which is vital to mid-school education, she says.
Yet Chavez thinks the money could be better spent elsewhere. “We will focus the money to more academic-oriented programs,” Chavez said at the news conference, and announced that the city's Education Council developed a rating system to measure after-school programs. According to the rating system, academic programs rank highest. Arts and creative pursuits place fifth on the list of eight.
APS Superintendent Beth Everitt says the mayor has every right to talk about the criteria and use of funds. “That's a valuable conversation for the city and APS,” she says. The trouble, she adds, is schools were following criteria the city had already approved.
Ellen Bernstein, president of the Albuquerque Teachers Federation, says the Elementary and Middle School Initiative was developed 11 years ago for two reasons: to prevent students from dropping out by keeping them engaged with school and to make sure latchkey kids have a place to be until their parents get home from work around 5 or 6 p.m.
Heidi Jensen, the coordinator for the initiative at Grant Middle School, says schools were instructed by the city more than a decade ago to find a way to keep students engaged until 6 p.m. “It was really hard for me to say to my colleagues, 'I know you're working until 3. How about until 6?'” Teachers, parents and administrators pulled together, establishing bowling clubs, golf clubs and homework clubs to find a way to keep kids from falling through the cracks.
Usually, after-school programs for the next school year would be set by the end of May. Application packets are sent out in April and include a budget, which is based on how many kids attend the school, receive free lunches and so on. Schools draw up proposals according to their budgets and submit them to the city. Proposals are either approved or dismissed by May, and schools still have a couple weeks while in session to talk to teachers and administrators to figure out who will staff the next year's programs.
With the city’s spending evaluation, this year there’s a real time crunch. Application packets still weren't available at the time this article went to press, though the mayor told Everitt they would be released Monday, July 10. On Monday, Everitt said she had not received the packet.
Once schools have the packet, they will have until Aug. 1 to submit their proposals to the city. The Education Council will evaluate programs based on their new rating system and make their recomendations by Aug. 4, Chavez says.
Everitt says it's going to be a real scramble to get programs in place with such little notice. APS will have to get information out to parents, find staffing for the programs, track down principals and tell them which clubs will get the city funds in the six days before school starts.
If the city nixes a program the community considers valuable, such as the popular jump-rope team that performs all over the city, “people are going to be upset,” Everitt says. In such a scenario, she will try to find a way to replace the lost city moneys for some of the programs with APS funds. Still, “parents may be thinking they have an after-school activity planned for their kids, and they don't have one,” she says.
The study of APS funding is only the beginning, Chavez said. “I don't want there to be any mistake today. This is just the first step. APS is going to change.” According to Chavez, the Education Council will scrutinize all of the $16 million the city spends on APS.
“I believe he's aiming at taking over public schools,” says Ree Chacon, who runs the chess club at Matheson Park Elementary. But Chavez said he's distressed when people believe this look into APS is a matter of playing politics. His main concern, he said, is low graduation rates and the lack of schools on the Westside. “I'm not going away. I'll be around at least three and a half more years.”