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Mail-in election will decide school technology funding

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

Don’t mistake it for junk mail!

Registered voters within the boundaries of the Santa Fe Public School District will be getting mail-in ballots next week asking them whether they support renewal of the Education Technology Note, a property tax measure that would provide $55 million in technical support to public schools, including local charter schools, over the next five years.

The Santa Fe County Clerk’s office will mail out ballots Feb. 5. Voters will have until March 5 to return the ballot in a provided stamped self-addressed envelope, or hand deliver it to the clerk’s office at 102 Grant Ave. in Santa Fe.

“The date of the postmark doesn’t matter,” warned SFPS Superintendent Veronica García during a recent interview with the Journal. “The ballot has to be in the county clerk’s office by 7 p.m. on March 5.”

It’s easiest just to follow the directions provided on the mailer, check a box on the ballot, sign it, seal the envelope and drop it in the mailbox the first chance you get. Then you can forget about it, Garciá says … at least for about another five years.

The school district won’t ask taxpayers to renew the ETN again until 2024. Of course, García hopes voters will check the box to renew the ETN. The bulk of the funding goes to benefitting students in the classroom, she said, and it builds upon what has already been created through voter support of previous tax measures.

“When you think of the Education Technology Note, it’s really named appropriately because it’s all about the educational program,” Garcia said. “It’s not about admin, it’s not about the devices we need to run the administration, or safety or security; this is all educational.”

We’re living in a digital world now, she says, so much of what has to be taught in the schools these days involves technology.

“This is about supporting kids in the classroom and ensuring that they have the 21st-century skills they need to go to college or enter the workforce. That is our commitment and we intend to keep our word on that,” she said. “If we lose this (election), not only would this take us backwards – we wouldn’t be able to refresh equipment and continue to move forward – but also we would lose jobs.”

About 30-35 digital coaches and technical staff would have to be let go, García said.

State law modified

The mail-in election is a different way of voting and may be employed just this one time.

In an effort to combat voter fatigue and save the costs of running elections, the state Legislature last year passed the Local Election Act, consolidating elections and moving school elections to November of odd-numbered years.

But waiting until this November to vote on the ETN creates a funding gap between now and then, so a mail-in election now keeps the money flowing.

The ETN is funded through property taxes and because of the timing of when property tax bills are sent out, the election has to be held now in order for the County Assessor’s Office to apply the correct tax on bills that go out later this year.

Property tax payers would not see their taxes go up if the ETN is approved. But rejecting the tax renewal would save property owners $1.50 per every $1,000 of taxable value on the property. That translates to $150 per year on a home with an assessed value of $300,000, as property taxes in New Mexico are levied on a third of the assessed value.

In all, about $9 million per year would go to Santa Fe Public Schools if renewal of the ETN is approved. About $2 million per year would go to five charter schools: New Mexico School for the Arts, Monte Del Sol, The Masters Program, Tierra Encantada and Turquoise Trail.

“So it really serves all students in the Santa Fe area,” she said.

So far, no public opposition to the measure has emerged. In some recent local votes on property tax measures, opposition has surfaced closer to election day.

The ETN was first imposed by the Santa Fe school board, without an election, in 2014, under authority granted by the state Legislature.

The 1.5 mill tax didn’t go over well with some homeowners, many of whom were unaware of the school board’s action and were shocked to see a significant increase on their property tax bills starting in the fall of 2014. But the school mill levy was only part of it. Increases from county government and Santa Fe Community College, among smaller increases from other entities, also showed up on tax bills for the first time that fall, causing the County Treasurer’s Office to be deluged with angry phone calls.

The state law that allowed the school board to impose the tax without voter approval was subsequently modified to allow school boards to voluntarily take the question to voters, which the Santa Fe board first did – with success – in February 2015. The levy passed with 72 percent of the vote then and the measure was OK’d by voters again in 2016, this time with 62 percent of the vote in favor.

No matter the outcome of the election, the mail-in election becomes an added expense for the school district. Exactly how much the election will cost is unknown because it depends on the cost of postage for returned ballots.

What is known is that the cost is $1.01 for the ballot and envelope and 55 cents postage for each of the approximately 86,000 eligible voters, according to County Clerk Geraldine Salazar.

In addition, the school district says it is paying another $10,000 for poll workers.

SFPS may be reimbursed, at least in part, for the cost of the election. The funding gap was an unintended kink in the Local Election Act. Lawmakers are proposing that school districts forced to conduct such elections to maintain the funding stream receive some form of reimbursement, but it’s too early in the current session to know what will happen.

Building resources

Perhaps the main thing funding through the ETN does is put a computing device in the hands of every student in grades 2 through 6 while they are at school and issues Chromebooks to all students in grades 7 through 12.

That’s important in this day and age, says Jeff Gephart, SFPS’s assistant superintendent of engagement and school support.

“It opens up worlds and provides our students with multiple resources,” he said of computers connected to the internet. “Back in the day, you had your textbook and whatever was in there, that was your resource. Now, it’s virtual reality, it’s simulation, it’s strengthening what we do in the classroom not just in the way of computer science, but in the core program.”

The core program includes the district’s Digital Learning Plan, which García maintains is one of the best in the country. That’s why, she said, Tom Ryan, the district’s chief information and strategy officer, will present to the National School Board Association in Philadelphia this spring.

Ryan said Santa Fe Public Schools already has a solid infrastructure to build on.

“This really takes care of refreshing the wireless equipment in the buildings so the laptops can access the internet,” he said. “It will refresh that infrastructure, but it isn’t paying for wiring out any more from a facility. The last election took care of that.”

About 45 percent of the funding from the ETN would go toward providing student devices, creating innovative design spaces and classroom technology.

Another 30 percent would go toward professional learning and instructional support for teachers. The money would pay for computers, white boards and digital learning coaches who work with both teachers and students.

“It’s not easy to make that transition from textbooks to digital learning,” Gephart said. “So those digital coaches are instrumental in helping our teachers make that transition. In doing that, it brings the learning to life for students.”

About 15 percent of the funding pays for student connectivity – support for network and wireless systems – and 10 percent for tech support.

Level playing field

Last year, the school board passed a resolution that aims to launch a district-wide computer science initiative within the next five years in order to “embrace and build skills and interest in computers for all children throughout Santa Fe.”

The ETN is a key component of that.

They aren’t just teaching English, math and science in schools these days. Coding, programming, robotics, web design are all in the mix now. And there is an emphasis on developing a “whole” student.

“We’re trying to bring skills of problem-solving, critical thinking, etcetera into the classroom, as well as coding and robotics, etcetera,” Ryan said.

Ryan talked about Meow Wolf’s design labs and maker spaces that stimulate creativity.

“We want more kids that can graduate with high-tech skills, not only to fill the jobs we currently have, but also we can expand job opportunities in Santa Fe because they know we have kids with the skills they need to work in the workforce here,” he said.

In that way, it’s an economic development component.

“This city wants to attract high-tech industry to our city. Well, they’re going to need the employees,” García said. “(Technology) is in every career now. We live in this 21st-century environment, we have to make sure our students are able to compete at the highest level.”

García said the district is considering expanding the highly successful medical career pathway program at Capital High School.

“We know that health care is a booming career pathway. But within that is another side that has to do with managing data. So we are exploring how we might be able to build a pathway in the area of medical informatics,” she said.

García says the ETN is most beneficial for students from lower-income families.

If students in sixth grade or higher don’t have access to internet at home, they can download assignments on their take-home computer, she said.

“Many of our instructional materials now are digital. So this also enhances and creates stronger equity in our district, so that students who don’t have access to technology because of income or other barriers will have that access and put them on a level playing field so they have an equitable learning opportunity,” the superintendent said.

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