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APS superintendent: ‘We will do the best we can with what we have’

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

A “Rubik’s Cube.”

That’s how Kizito Wijenje, the executive director of Albuquerque Public Schools capital master plan, described the district’s capital funding situation the day after a complete defeat of its mill levy and bond package.

On Tuesday night, voters struck down – by wide margins – all three questions on APS’ special mail-in ballot that would have brought in $900 million to APS over the next six years, in part through a property tax increase.

The last time all measures on an APS ballot were defeated was in 2003, Wijenje said.

Wednesday morning, Superintendent Raquel Reedy and Wijenje said APS will have to go back to the drawing board and reassess its plans.

But they didn’t offer details on how the district’s operational fund would be affected, how exactly the outcome will affect the 23 projects that are already underway in the district, and whether voters will be asked to vote again on an APS tax increase in its next election in November.

“We asked, ‘Could our community support a relatively small uptick in our taxes for our children’s schools and for the facilities they live and learn in?'” Reedy said. “It was very clear, they said no.”

APS was seeking to raise its tax rate from 10.45 to 12.45, resulting in a roughly 5 percent increase on overall property tax bills.

Unofficial final results from the Bernalillo County Clerk’s Office on Wednesday morning showed the first mill levy question, which would not have raised taxes, was voted down by 64 percent of those casting ballots on the issue. The second mill levy question and the bond, both of which would have resulted in higher property taxes, were voted down by 69 and 57 percent, respectively.

At a Board of Education meeting on Wednesday night, board member Barbara Petersen said she thinks the bond and mill levy package failure perpetuates a message of inequity, asking how APS can say they value all kids the same if some of the students’ water is brown because of old plumbing or its students’ buildings are dilapidated?

She also said APS may have relied too much on a history of voters approving bond and mill levy issues.

“I think we underestimated the amount of misinformation, the amount of outright misleading … and we didn’t answer it with honest facts,” she said.

But member Peggy Muller-Aragón pushed back, saying she believes voters knew what they were voting for.

She added that she applauds voters for “wanting better accountability and for prioritizing students over unions.”

And she asked why APS wasn’t “in check with reality,” saying she wasn’t surprised by Tuesday night’s outcome.

“We’re a poor state,” she told the Journal, adding there are other tax increases being proposed in the state. “The ask – from what I heard – was just so big.”

Reedy said the district will learn from Tuesday night’s outcome.

“What we need to do now is reassess all three questions and do, frankly, what any good teacher would do when a lesson plan misses the mark. We review, we adjust, adapt, revamp and rewrite, if necessary,” she said.

It’s unclear if APS will propose a property tax increase again.

“All options are still open and this is something we are going to look at very carefully,” the superintendent said.

Reedy said she doesn’t believe Tuesday night’s results were a reflection on how the community feels about APS.

“I think really and truly it is individuals looking at their own private, personal situation and making their decisions based on that,” Reedy said.

She thinks the outcome had more to do with economics and timing.

Still, Reedy said the district is now faced with tough decisions.

“There is going to be some impact. There’s just no way we can tell you that everything is going to be fine and everything will continue,” she said.

She said some issues will get a priority.

“Safety will continue to be a paramount issue for students and families,” she said.

APS had planned to use $20 million of the requested $900 million on safety.

Board of Education President David Peercy said 23 projects that are already designed and partially constructed will also be prioritized.

However, the full extent of the capital-project impact was not detailed.

Wijenje said APS will be releasing a comprehensive list to outline which projects will be most affected.

Meanwhile, 11 planned projects will not move forward and technological updates will be postponed.

“That may mean dipping into operational funds for repairs and that may mean more belt tightening, but we are used to that,” Peercy said.

However, Reedy said APS “has to talk about” how exactly operational money will be tapped.

“We are committed to educating students and paying salaries and that comes from operational … and, so, that is a sacred thing for us and we have to be very, very careful about what decisions we make,” Reedy said.

Wijenje noted it’s going to be a puzzle for the district to balance costs.

“We don’t want to use money (that should go) to hire kindergarten teachers or buy books to patch roofs. At the same time, we don’t want the kindergarten roof to be leaking on kindergarten kids,” Wijenje said. “So, it’s a Rubik’s Cube and we will have to deal with it.”

While Reedy said her team had talked about contingency plans, she said the real decision-making conversations will begin now that the results of the election are final.

“We will do the best we can with what we have,” she said.

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