While I don’t agree with him very often, I still have to admire the battling spirit and tireless energy our pugnacious mayor, Martin Chavez, exerts every day he’s in office.
I like to think of him as Albuquerque’s political Pete Rose, sliding headlong into home plate, blasting through whatever obstacles (or people) make the mistake of standing in his path. Marty Hustle.
It’s just that, darn it, don’t we all wish he picked his fights a little more carefully?
I mean, this latest brouhaha over how the city’s after-school contract with the school system should be implemented is one of those things that make you cringe.
“Please,” you say to yourself, “isn’t there someone he might listen to, anyone high enough in his administration or on the City Council whose advice he’ll take, with the wisdom to say, ‘Not now, Mayor, not this time. Just cool it for a moment and think this through’?”
But, apparently, either he doesn’t ask or no one offers, so off he goes firing thunderbolts; storming to the press; making a cancerous tumor out of a minor skin rash.
Apparently, he believes the city should be using its $1.5 million annual contract with Albuquerque Public Schools (APS) for after-school programs to produce greater change in that sluggish Goliath, our local school system. “More academic rigor!” he roars. “Jump rope? Legos clubs? Cheerleading? Wastes of time and wastes of money. We want math, science, reading, writing. Start producing, APS, or lose this money.”
And no one even tries to block the plate. He slides across unimpeded because no one on the “other team” can quite figure out what he’s built up this head of steam over. This, after all, is a program initially designed, created and funded during Chavez’ first term as mayor, over 10 years ago. It’s been tweaked and critiqued, wrangled and mangled, ever since.
Alan Armijo, the current County Commission chair and former city councilor, put the “Middle School Cluster Initiative” into the budget originally, but Chavez signed off—and has done so every year he’s been in office since. Until now.
This year, it's suddenly a big deal. Fightin’ words. “Throw down, APS, we’re going to come to blows over this one!”
Bewildered APS officials kept waiting for the mayor to start chuckling, “Hey, I wasn’t really mad at you. Fooled you; just kidding.” But he isn’t grinning. He truly wants to fight. And no one knows why.
Some facts about the program might help explain why APS is scratching its collective head over the mayoral hissy fit. $1.5 million sounds like a lot. Over 10 years, it amounts to $15 million, and that truly is a sum of impressive girth. But the city’s annual budget is over $500 million and the schools' budget is over three times that much, so this squabble is over the equivalent of paper clip money, less than a fraction of 1 percent of either budget.
Plus, the $1.5 million is spread over 100 elementary and middle schools (all those within the city limits), so what we’re talking about per elementary school is less than $10,000 for a full year of programming and barely $30,000 for the middle schools.
Now you can stomp your irate little feet all you want, Mr. Chavez, but you aren’t going to get a whole lot of “academic rigor” for those peanuts. APS used to be required to hire certified teachers for the after-school program, but at $25 an hour that proved to be a budgetary nightmare. The dollar stretched a whole lot further when they wised up and hired retirees, parents and community volunteers instead, at half that hourly rate.
Don’t forget, either, that after-school programs aren’t mandatory. Kids are free to come or not. The reason the cheerleading, the rocket clubs, the basketball and soccer teams, and, yes, even the jump roping and legos programs have evolved is because those have proven attractive to students. They’ll hang around for programs they’re interested in and they’ll flee those they aren’t.
Which brings up another point the mayor chooses to ignore: The original rationale behind after-school programming paid for by the city was to keep kids happily involved in positive activity instead of getting into trouble … or being taken advantage of. There were no “academically rigorous” objectives when this program started. It was enough to be able to say, "We know where they are and they are having a good time and not experimenting with (insert any of a dozen social perils here).”
My take is that the city has been incredibly far-sighted in putting that kind of program together. Caring adults spending productive time in developmentally appropriate activities with young men and women is nothing to dismiss too cavalierly.
So this is one time when Mayor Chavez ought to step back and drop the boxing gloves. There are better and more effective ways to prod APS toward academic improvement. The after-school program ought to be enjoyed for the success it already is.