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APS breakup: It’s back and gaining traction

It made it all the way to the governor back in 2002. A state representative and senator introduced legislation to do it this year. An Albuquerque mayoral candidate has it on his campaign fliers. A West Side City Council candidate says it is key to reducing crime and increasing economic development across the city.

And the recent release of poor student reading and math scores, and an increase in failing schools that aren’t helping them improve, much less be proficient, will only add fuel to the fire.

The idea of breaking up Albuquerque Public Schools is surfacing again after a 15-year hiatus.

Rep. David Adkins and Sen. Sander Rue, Albuquerque Republicans, co-sponsored HB 298/SB 89 this year, which according to its Fiscal Impact Report would have required “a school district with more than 40,000 students to reorganize based on a plan developed by the local school board and an appointed technical advisory committee.”

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Only APS has more than 40,000 students – it has more than 80,000, in fact, and is the only district in the state with more than 25,000 students.

Adkins wrote in an op-ed earlier this year that “If done correctly, smaller districts should save the state money, improve education outcomes, and strengthen the relationship between the community and the school board.” He says how district lines are drawn, how that translates into bonding capacity as well as how it affects the current capital master plan, and what the new administrations look like and cost would be key to a successful breakup.

Because as then-Gov. Gary Johnson hinted when he vetoed similar legislation in 2002, simply chopping off the head of one hydra just gives you more hydras.

APS introduced a Learning Zone plan this month clearly designed to stave off any new breakup attempt – it divides the district into four mini-district quadrants, each with 35 to 40 schools enrolling 20,000 to 22,000 students. It appears to draw on the Legislative Education Study Committee analysis of Adkins and Rue’s bill, which cited studies showing “ten academic outcomes, including high school proficiency exams and minimum basic skills tests in reading and mathematics, as well as average district SAT scores in mathematics, were negatively impacted by the number of schools per district.”

The Adkins/Rue bill died in the House Education Committee. Should they bring it back in 2018, they’ve got some momentum on their side.

Albuquerque mayoral candidate and City Councilor Dan Lewis’ second plank of his five-plank platform is a call to “replace APS’ bloated, unaccountable school district with smaller, more manageable districts.” Robert Aragon, an attorney who is on the state Board of Finance and is campaigning for Lewis’ District 5 seat (and is married to APS board member Peggy Muller-Aragon), says “the West Side is adamant about its own school district” separate from “APS’ systemic corruption.” He cites Rio Rancho Public Schools, which broke off from APS and now spends less per student but has a much higher graduation rate (84 percent vs. 66 percent), as an example of what can and should be done, and why.

APS continues to have low student proficiency rates – just 28 percent of its third-graders and 45 percent of its 11th-graders can read at grade level. Because its students aren’t improving, it also has low school grades – in 2017, more APS schools received “F” grades than any other letter grade; fully 34 percent of the district’s schools are classified as failing because they are not delivering student progress or proficiency.

A breakup almost went to voters back in 2002. That’s the year then-Rep. James Taylor, a South Valley Democrat, sponsored a bill to allow voters to break up any district bigger than 35,000 students into at least three smaller districts. APS was the only district that would have been affected then, as well. Taylor’s bill had bipartisan support and passed the House 56-10 and the Senate 26-14; he said at the time, “The Legislature has spoken: Albuquerque Public Schools is a mess, it’s too big and it needs to be broken up.”

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Then-Gov. Johnson rejected the proposal, and in his veto message he expressed concern about “three new layers of bureaucracy,” with corresponding costs. But he also wrote, “It is clear that the Albuquerque public school system must undergo a major reformation to meet the educational needs of all Albuquerque public school students.”

In the decade and a half since lawmakers voted to send an APS breakup bill to voters in 2002, the more things change the more they stay the same. There are some new senators and representatives in the Legislature; districts including Gadsden, Farmington and Alamogordo are on positive trajectories with no “F” schools at all; and APS has gone through numerous superintendents, administrative configurations and academic plans.

Yet some community leaders are again calling to split the district up as it continues to struggle to educate enough Albuquerque students. As in 2002, the question is whether breaking up APS will change that.

UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to editorial page editor D’Val Westphal at 823-3858 or road@abqjournal.com. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.

 

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