At last night's budget hearing, Santa Fe Public Schools Superintendent Bobbie Gutierrez had about three unenviable roles to play.
First, the bad-news-bearing doctor:
Gutierrez had to explain how SFPS arrived at its painful $7.4 million budget shortfall. (The main reason is a decline in state funding, which provides more than 97 percent
of SFPS' operating budget.)
Second, the saleswoman
: Gutierrez presented a plan to consolidate three Santa Fe schools—Alvord, Kaune and Larragoite—into one, a plan that's been publicly
raked through the coals. "It doesn't make me happy
to recommend these things," Gutierrez said.
: Gutierrez had to listen, and the parents, teachers, artists and advocates there were none too happy with Gutierrez's plan to cut SFPS' arts and music programs, consolidate schools and increase class sizes. (She also said additional administrative cuts were due "very soon.") The last two SFPS budget meetings are scheduled for today, 6-8pm at Nava Elementary, and Saturday, April 10, 10am-12:30pm at 610 Alta Vista.
Last night's meeting, held in the old Alameda Middle School gym, was packed. Gutierrez and Deputy Superintendent Mel Morgan spoke about the budget for more than an hour before broaching the subject of consolidations and cuts.
Here's how the SFPS budget works:
The total budget for FY09-10 is $275 million.
Of that, more than half ($145 million) comes from state-appropriated or bonded capital outlay funds, which Morgan explained can only be used
for school construction, renovation, landscaping and maintenance.
The other big chunk ($101 million) composes SFPS' general fund
, which is used to pay for the nuts and bolts of running schools: lunches, books, buses—and of course, teachers. Of that, the biggest chunk is SFPS' operational budget
, and Morgan, who sounds eerily like Kenneth from 30 Rock
, seemed proud that 87 percent of that goes to paying teachers' salaries and benefits.
The problem is that the state, which pays for almost all of SFPS' operational budget, has made cuts to (among everything else) education, leaving school districts scrambling. Oh yeah, and the federal stimulus money that's filling in last year's
budget crisis? Gone in 2011.
Gutierrez's answer, then, is a three-year plan to consolidate schools
—and not just the three currently on the table. The plan calls for consolidating Nava and Chaparral
Elementaries in 2012/13 and possibly forming another K-8 out of Acequia Madre, Atalaya, EJ Martinez and the still-new Amy Biehl in 2013.
Criticisms of the plan run the gamut from time-worn—big schools don't work; big schools are inefficient; increasing class sizes means poorer education quality—to the more unique. Mitch Buszek, who leads the citizen activist group Save Our Schools, notes that property values
and community fabric
are two of his key concerns.
"People evaluate where they live on what school their kids are going to go to," Buszek tells SFR. "[Emptying a school] reduces the buyer prospects for any piece of property—and when that goes down, prices go down." It's not just economics, Buszek says; small schools are popular and effective. "The uproar you've got from parents is an indicator that these schools work," he says.
Buszek says he's trying to nail down school board members' positions on the consolidation issue; he's hoping public resistance to the idea will be enough to get them to vote against it—which wouldn't be unprecedented; Gov Richardson himself
saved Alvord from closure last May.
Even so, Buszek may be fighting an uphill battle. A degree of certitude
colored last night's meeting, with some members of the public using their allotted two minutes (trimmed from 3 minutes because of the number of people who wanted to comment) to try to cast the consolidation in a positive light.
"It's actually a good thing," one parent said. "It's nice to mix the kids up. ...And no, the Board didn't pay me to say that."
While the budget and its possible fixes seem, at the very least, well-scrutinized by SFPS, there is one problem: What happens to empty schools?
The extent of Gutierrez's plan for Alvord and Kaune is to lease them "to city or other entity," which is pretty vague. As one parent pointed out, those leases are far from nailed down, and if SFPS doesn't find a lessee, things could get ugly. Just look at Portland
. Or Washington, DC
. Or Cleveland
Maybe that's just evidence that this is happening everywhere. Or is it?