Alibi V.16 No.6 • Feb 8-14, 2007 

Ortiz y Pino

Adrift in a Sea of Life Preservers

What will it take to save APS?

Ideas for how to save the Albuquerque Public School system are flying around the Legislature like aspen leaves on a blustery October afternoon. Every lawmaker seems to have a pet scheme for rescuing our ponderous district from itself--to no effect.

The institution plods on doggedly, impervious to calls for change. Half the state budget (this year almost $5 billion) is devoted to public school education. One third of that is spent in APS, the state’s largest school district by far (five times bigger than the second largest, Las Cruces).

That means one in every six State tax dollars is funneled into APS schools! A lot of money; a lot of students (95,000) and a lot of employees (11,000 teachers and other professionals plus untold thousands of support staff) make up this behemoth.

The APS budget dwarfs the City of Albuquerque budget. Its bus system transports as many riders as the city’s. It has its own police, garbage and maintenance systems operating in parallel to the municipal systems.

Both are public entities, governed by publicly elected representatives of the people. Yet the public’s control over all this school activity is practically nonexistent, not because of some ugly conspiracy, but because so few in the electorate actually care enough to get out and vote.

I write this a few days before the most recent school board elections, so the exact final vote totals are unknown. Still, I’m pretty confident they didn’t add up to much more than 10 percent of the registered voters. That’s about as high as they ever get.

When so few voters care about the outcome, you begin to understand why the sense of drift in the system is so pervasive. It is not a reflection on the administration or the board members.

Rather it is a consequence of institutional bloat and public indifference. It almost doesn’t matter at all who the board members are or whom they hire to serve as superintendent—the basic problem is so few people are paying attention because they don’t believe they can make any difference in what happens in the district.

Yet if the public at large seems indifferent to how our schools are being operated, that is not the case at the Legislature, where dozens of ideas for change are being floated, the aforementioned blizzard of dry leaves:

• Split the district: into two, three or even four.

• Add two new Westside districts to the current Board of Education, expanding it from seven to nine.

• Give the mayor’s office authority to name at-large board members.

• Increase the authority of principals to act autonomously.

• Pay principals more to make that tough job more attractive.

• Pay educational assistants more to make that tough job more attractive.

• Create additional charters.

• Freeze the number of charters.

• Focus on after-school programming and create community schools.

• Expand anti-obesity (or anti-drug, comprehensive sex education, anti-bullying or parental involvement) efforts in the schools.

• Increase the age when dropping-out is permitted.

• And, on the top of everybody’s list for improving APS, throw more money at it.

That’s a partial inventory of the bright ideas now being debated. A few will filter through the process and become law. They might even help.

There are no “bad” ideas on the list; all of them might make a big improvement in the schools possible. But I am convinced that none of them are the single magical life preserver that will carry the district to guaranteed safety and effectiveness. For that we need a change in the public’s attitude about the schools.

We need to make citizens grow up and become part of local government, part of democracy, with all the struggling and compromising that form of government entails. As long as our schools are viewed as a distinct but less-important type of local government—a system in which we permit a few experts to make decisions for our children’s future with a minimum of input from the masses—it will remain a curious type of non-participatory technocracy, like a Water Board, Flood Control Authority or Conservancy District.

We await the decisions of the school board the way the crowds gather outside St. Peter’s when a new Pope is being “elected” behind closed doors by a narrow panel of elite voters. At last they emerge and announce what they have done to us.

As long as the school election cycle is separated from municipal and state elections (a 1912 State Constitution requirement) and news about its board meetings, tax decisions and policy changes is relegated to the back pages of the dailies or 10-second clips after the weather forecast on television, we can’t expect real improvement.

I know no one now operating in the system favors blending the school elections with those of local or state government. They are comfortably accustomed to operating out of the limelight and with a minimum of public scrutiny and far more manageable voter numbers. But that might be the best argument in favor of making the switch.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.