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Legislators seek AG’s opinion on Engage Santa Fe

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SANTA FE – Two Santa Fe legislators have asked for an attorney general’s opinion on the constitutionality of the Santa Fe school board’s move to hire a private firm to run a program aimed at getting dropouts back into class and keeping other students in school.

Democratic Reps. Jim Trujillo and Luciano “Lucky” Varela requested the opinion Friday on the Engage Santa Fe program, which is to be run by Atlantic Education Partners.

“We are concerned because the Santa Fe Public Schools is creating a new school for drop-outs and currently enrolled students, and turning that school over to private hands,” the lawmakers’ letter to Attorney General Gary King says.

“Private contractors do provide many services in public schools, but when their share of the budget (for the dropout program) is ninety-percent, it concerns us that a private school program has been created with public funds.”

The local branch of the National Education Association has argued that the program violates state constitutional bans on using public education dollars to support a private school.

Superintendent Joe Boyd, who will be principal for the Engage school with no additional salary, disputes that and notes that school districts already hire private companies for other services. District officials say hiring Atlantic Education Partners also provides a cheaper, quicker way to get the dropout program going.

Reps. Trujillo and Varela asked Attorney General King to address this specific question: “May a private corporation operate a public school without violating the New Mexico Constitution?”

Boyd said he supports getting an AG’s opinion. “We’re confident in our legal analysis and believe this is an appropriate path to take,” he said, adding he’s confident that the opinion “will put this all to bed.”

But Boyd said he was disappointed that opposition to Engage Santa Fe “is something that would put kids on the street rather than take them off the street.” He said the program has “nothing to do with private schools.” Boyd said the contract with for-profit Atlantic is similar to one with a non-profit that runs a program to help students achieve a GED at the Academy at Larragoite.

NEA-Santa Fe said in a news release that the lawmakers sought the opinion after hearing the union’s concerns. “Engage Santa Fe does sound wonderful but for one major point,” said NEA-Santa Fe President Bernice Garcia-Baca, and that’s “hiring a Florida-based startup for-profit company … to provide this education instead of empowering and funding SFPS employees to develop a program.”

The union also said it’s concerned because Boyd will be principal of the school although he has a connection to Atlantic Education Partners. A founder of the company served on Boyd’s transition team after Boyd became Santa Fe superintendent 2012. Boyd disclosed the relationship before the school board accepted Atlantic’s bid to run the program.

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