Do you know the classic definition of insanity? It goes like this: When something hasn't worked in the past, isn't working now, has no chance of working in the future, but it's repeated over and over again in the faint hope that maybe, just maybe, this time it might pan out—that's nuts.
At Albuquerque Public Schools (APS), the availability of inordinately large wads of cash to flush down the drain makes that form of insanity particularly attractive.
These musings on mental health are occasioned by the growing storm on the horizon brewing over the two (yes, count 'em, two!) $100 million high schools our school board is preparing to build on the Westside.
That is not a typo. They are gearing up to spend $200 million of taxpayer money to provide educational facilities for 5,000 of our local high school students. Really.
You do the math. I think it comes out to $40,000 for each student, but then my figuring gets fuzzy when I become apoplectic, so double-check me, please. And that's just construction costs, and probably not all of them.
As a point of reference, I would note that the total take for the entire APS district from its share of the property tax each year is only sufficient to permit about $60 million in projects. The district holds a bond election every two years and if one passes, it generates roughly $120 million. That's for all building projects, new construction and renovations in the entire system.
So forget the other 90,000 students in the district. Not much else will squeeze through the pipeline past those two tubbies.
The sheer size of this fiscal error is probably sufficient to cause voters to pause before accepting it. But the worst aspect of the situation is that APS knows—we should all know from past experience—that the model being used is wrong. The mega-high school for 2,500 students set on 50 acres of asphalt just flat doesn't work.
It contributes mightily to students dropping out. It makes personal relationships between teachers and students difficult if not impossible. It is an industrial, assembly-line model that has been demonstrated ineffectual in every study of student success ever done.
And there are simpler, cheaper, better approaches going on in Albuquerque right now. There is an optimum size for a high school learning community, and it isn't even close to being 2,500. It is more like 500 students, max. Bill Gates, the Microsoft billionaire, knows this and his foundation has committed to donate $1 billion to improve science, math and technology skills in our schools nationwide. A portion of this money has made it to some Albuquerque charter high schools, since a high school can have no more than 400 students to qualify for the funds.
APS spends a huge amount of energy and budget trying to figure out how to carve up its current dysfunctional mega-schools into smaller, internally independent "academies." Then they turn around and propose to build two more dinosaurs. What's up with that?
Here's another point of reference to consider. Amy Biehl public charter high school is renovating a gorgeous 100-year-old post office Downtown into an urban campus for 200 students. Total cost comes out to $17,000 per student, less than half what APS wants to spend out in the boonies.
As for the locations, something else very weird is going on, as far as I can see. We are told a big school of this size requires at least 50 acres of land. Who says? Is it a federal law or something? If so, how in the world does New York City or Chicago ever provide secondary education? This is no requirement; it's a land speculation.
So sure, once you set up that sort of phony artificial parameter, where else are you going to locate these schools but out on the mesa, out beyond even the burgeoning suburbs; out where you will need to lay miles of water, sewer, phone and electrical lines?
Not coincidentally, those newly-laid lines, paid for with tax dollars, will facilitate further leapfrog growth maddeningly toward the Rio Puerco. And that growth will soon demand yet another white elephant high school ... which will continue to encourage the sprawling cycle and all of its economic, environmental and transportation problems.
At this point I should mention APS is estimating the first of these schools will "only" cost $75 million. But that figure spirals dizzily upward daily and the infrastructure costs are only now emerging. Trust me, when the final bell and whistle is installed we'll consider ourselves darn lucky to have spent less than $100 million.
They are already using the $100 million figure for the second school, due on line three or four years from now. You might as well add $20 million to that price tag.
Apologists for these two aberrations will point out that the state is being asked to pony up half the cost. But it is heartbreaking and an utter waste of taxpayer funds. Five modest-sized schools for 500 students each could be built for half the cost of each of the new monstrosities; with better educational outcomes and without subsidizing ill-conceived sprawl on the fringe of this city.