SANTA FE, N.M. — Santa Fe Public Schools Superintendent Veronica García is hoping that this year she and her staff might be able to sit down, maybe with some chips and salsa, and enjoy watching the Super Bowl, like everyone else.
That wasn’t the case last year. A flier from an anonymous source showed up in mailboxes the day before the big game – and three days before the election – urging voters to reject a general obligation bond to provide the school district with $100 million in funding. The money from the G.O. bond, part of which came from an increase in property taxes, was proposed
to provide four years of funding for green building initiatives, district-wide facility improvements, and construction, including building the new Milagro Middle School now scheduled to open in the fall of 2019.
“That sent us scrambling,” García said of the mailer in a recent interview.
Not only did the flier contain false and misleading informati
n, she said, the dark money attack ad undermined the school district’s effort to provide the best possible environment for teaching and learning and student success.
“I think in the end it backfired,” she said of the anonymous mailer. “It got people energized.”
In the end, 68 percent of voters supported the bond.
The school district wins more bond elections than the New England Patriots win Super Bowls. Bond elections come up almost annually, with GO bond elections held every four years, House Bill 33 elections – for erecting, remodeling, additions and providing equipment or furnishings for school buildings, project administration and other project costs – every six years, and elections to fund technology infrastructure and upgrades every three years.
Then there’s the Senate Bill 9 votes, like the one on Feb. 6, which comes up every six years. Titled “Public School Capital Improvement Act Tax Question” on the ballot, it funds building maintenance and many of the same types of capital projects as HB-33.
The bond fund supports certain kinds of infrastructure and maintenance work on buildings on the district’s 30 school campuses and its administrative buildings, as well as work at six local charter schools: Academy for Technology and Classics, The Masters Program, Monte del Sol, Tierra Encantada, Turquoise Trail and the state-chartered New Mexico School for the Arts.
All these sources of funding are supported through tax levies applied to a property’s assessed value. One mill is calculated at $1 per $1,000 of a property’s assessed value, which is one-third of a property’s market value. The SB-9 measure is a two-mill levy. So a home with a market value of $300,000 has an assessed value of $100,000 and a homeowner can expect to pay $200 per year, or $16.67 per month, in property taxes from the two-mill levy.
Altogether, funding from the bond sources make up $59.6 million of the district’s $184 million budget for the current fiscal year
The SB-9 funding would generate roughly $13 million per year through property taxes for the next six years. Eighty-eight percent of it goes to Santa Fe Public Schools and 12 percent to the charter schools.
If voters support the two-mill levy tax, property taxes will not increase. But if it is defeated, property owners would see their tax rate reduced. But García says that would be disastrous for the school district.
State education funding doesn’t support building maintenance and the district’s bonding capacity is at its limit, she said. If there’s a leaky roof in a classroom, or problems with plumbing or air conditioning and heating, or if playground equipment breaks, “There’s no place else for us to go (for funding),” García said.
“The community has been very supportive,” García said of the district’s win streak in bond elections, though she can’t help but worry about a potential upset.
At a community breakfast held at Kearny Elementary School last week, she again brought up last year’s mailer and the last-minute Super Bowl Sunday game planning by staff that helped secure the win on election day. She credited voters for the victory.
“It was because of you and your network that had accurate information and getting it out to neighbors,” she told an audience of about 40 people, many of them representing groups that partner with the school district. “You play a critical role, because it could happen again.”
García brought up another concern: voter fatigue. In addition to the near-annual elections funding local public schools, there’s a municipal election in March.
And, ominously, local voters soundly defeated a Santa Fe County gross receipt tax increase in September and a proposed tax on sugar-sweetened beverages in May, both in special elections.
From all sources, including the schools, Santa Fe County and Santa Fe Community College, property taxes in Santa Fe went up 20 percent between 2012 and 2016.
Since her salary is paid by taxpayer dollars, García technically can’t ask people to vote “yes” on the Capital Improvement Act tax question. But as superintendent she’s happy to giver her view of how the district would be affected if renewal of the tax was defeated.
During last week’s breakfast meeting, she said the SB-9 funding serves to protect the community’s investment in public schools. The funding goes toward such things as internet access, telecommunications, district email, financial and human resources systems, state reporting systems, staff computers and copy machines.
While voters supported the “Education Technology Note” that pays for technology infrastructure two years ago, “now where do we go for the resources to pay for internet?” she said. Same goes for security. Security systems do little good if there’s not money to pay to operate them, she said. “It is really critical to safety,” she said of the bond vote.
State funding for education is always an issue and the school district is already financially strapped, she said. “There’s not a lot of wiggle room,” she said, adding that the district was faced with cutting its budget last year, employees haven’t had raises in years, and costs for just about everything continue to rise.
While García can’t tell you how to vote, school board members can. They receive no salary supported by taxpayer dollars and can freely speak their minds.
“We don’t have a lot of extra cash now if this bond fails,” Maureen Cashmon, school board vice president, said at Wednesday’s meeting. “It’s critical now. We’re at bare bones.”
Board Member Steven Carrillo said not receiving the funding would be “cataclysmic.”
“If these things don’t pass, (budget cuts) would come right out of the classroom,” he said.