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APS board approves $1.3 billion budget

Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal

A divided Albuquerque Public Schools Board of Education passed a $1.3 billion budget that projects flat revenue for the next fiscal year after an emotional four-hour meeting Monday morning.

In the final vote, five board members backed the budget, with Peggy Muller-Aragón opposed and Analee Maestas abstaining.

Muller-Aragón and Maestas both worried that planned cost-cutting reorganizations of the gifted education and school computer technician programs will harm children and teachers.

“I don’t think our kids were put first,” Muller-Aragón said.

Board President Dave Peercy told news media that the district did “the best we can do with what we have.”

Although APS is projecting flat revenue, enrollment is falling and expenses are increasing, so the district still needs to find about $13 million in savings.

Public education is “significantly underfunded,” Peercy said, but APS worked hard to find efficiencies.

Several board members said they felt APS had been unfairly “beat over the head and shamed” by Gov. Susana Martinez and the news media during the budget-planning discussion, which included a recently scrapped proposal to drop middle school sports.

“We are having to contend with things aren’t necessarily of our making, and yet the rhetoric … is such that we get blamed for what we do and what we don’t do,” said Lorenzo Garcia, board vice president.

He cited the New Mexico Public Education Department’s criticism of district salaries. APS has 35 top administrators who each earn more than $100,000 a year.

“It hurts to have to try to respond to the kind of articles that demonize and plague our staff for earning a decent living,” Garcia said. “Not everyone earns a decent living at this point, and my hope is that, at some point, we can correct that, but it can only happen if we get sufficient funding for education.”

Board member Barbara Petersen said she was angry about the “myth” that APS is “fat and bloated and top heavy and dishonest.”

“The way people react to the budget that is being proposed is in the context of this myth,” she said. “I defy anyone to say we have not acted in the best interest of students.”

APS is covering the bulk of the $13 million by reorganizing district headquarters, according to a summary presented to the board.

Fifty-two positions will be eliminated across departments like human resources, communications, and equity and access – totaling $4.8 million in savings.

Chief Financial Officer Tami Coleman has said a number of the eliminated positions are vacant and simply will not be filled. Some staff will be transferred to new roles and others will be placed on a priority hire list for openings, reducing potential layoffs.

Another $1.1 million will come from a four-day reduction in workdays for central office and maintenance and operations employees, essentially a 1.5 percent pay cut. This includes the district’s top administrators. Employees who make $25,000 or less will not be affected.

APS will restructure the gifted education and school computer technician programs to save $2 million and fill in the remaining $5 million from cash reserves.

Peercy stressed that the restructuring involves moving employees and should not impact curriculum or quality of services.

While the district has a budget in place, administrators will closely watch the upcoming special legislative session, scheduled to begin Wednesday to address the state’s fiscal year 2018 budget.

Last month, Coleman said the district’s best guess was that K-12 education would receive a 2 percent cut to help cover the higher education budget – adding up to a $24 million loss for APS.

Now, it sounds like K-12 will not take a hit, Coleman said.

“We are cautiously optimistic with a bit of skepticism,” she told the board.

If a 2 percent cut is enacted, APS has a package of additional budget reductions in place.

During Monday’s meeting, Petersen wondered whether APS ever should have budgeted for a 2 percent cut because the process was so stressful for schools.

“Knowing now what I know, I’m not sure I would have voted in the same way and said go ahead with the 2 percent, but I do want the community to know that it was done in good conscience,” Petersen said. “It was based on the best information we had.”

Coleman defended the 2 percent projection, saying the detailed budget review was valuable, and the district is well prepared if further cuts are necessary.

But the discussion was painful, Coleman said.

“We have a lot of really dedicated people, and it can’t help but be an emotional process,” she said.

Last week, Martinez told reporters she was glad Albuquerque Public Schools “made the kids a priority in this instance.”

“I’m glad to see they finally came to their senses and did not cut classroom spending,” Martinez said, saying administrative costs should be targeted instead. The Republican governor said parents deserved to know how the district was spending taxpayer dollars.

“I think getting that communication to parents was the most important,” she said. “The parents needed to know.”

Journal staff writer Dan Boyd contributed to this report.