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Editorial: Can APS learn from voters’ resounding rejection of its tax plans?

Slow learners? Bad at math? In denial?

All fair questions given the response by Albuquerque Public Schools leadership after voters unequivocally rejected three tax questions on a mail-in ballot last week. APS wanted to hit property owners with $900 million in taxes over the next six years for maintenance work and a wish list of capital projects.

In a morning-after press conference, Superintendent Raquel Reedy expressed surprise the measures went down to defeat – an electoral shellacking the magnitude of which is hard to overstate.

“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?’ ” she said. “They said ‘no.’ ”

Small uptick? The three measures would have raised hundreds of millions in NEW property taxes, jacking up the APS tax rate by a whopping 19 percent. The district preferred to focus on the increase in context of a total tax bill – an increase of about 4.7 percent, $147 a year on a home valued at $220,000.

In what world is that a “relatively small uptick?” Not one where half the population is on Medicaid, one in four residents is on food stamps and the per capita income is just $25,257. And those who maintain that only property owners would have been affected miss the fact the increase would have undoubtedly been passed along in higher rents and prices of goods.

Reedy said she didn’t see the vote as a referendum on community sentiment about APS. Rather, she said she thought voters were motivated by “their own private personal situation.” That’s certainly true to some extent, but given the lopsided results, it’s also a rose-colored glasses way of looking at things.

Typical turnout for an APS election is in the single digits. More than 28.7 percent of eligible voters cast ballots in this election, the district’s first mail-in under the state’s streamlined election law. And the three requests failed miserably – the first mill levy question was voted down by 64 percent of those casting ballots, the second mill levy by 69 percent and the bond by 57 percent.

Some of that has to be driven by community awareness of APS’ steadily declining enrollment, significant dropout problem and poor test scores – at the same time local high-performing charter schools have long waiting lists as parents try to move their kids out of APS. APS has fewer students now than in the 1970s, and its student population has dwindled from more than 90,000 in 2010 to under 82,000 this year.

Critics also pointed out APS already spends more per student than many similar districts. And APS has been busier growing its spending on adults in administration than on kids in classrooms. From 2006 to 2017, according to state data, APS administrative spending increased by 17.5 percent, while classroom spending went up 7.4 percent.

Peggy Muller-Aragon, who is unfortunately too often a minority of one on the APS Board of Education, was much more in touch with public sentiment in her assessment of the election results. She said APS wasn’t in check with reality and voters want “better accountability,” with students taking priority over unions – items not currently on the APS menu.

All three measures were soundly rejected by what Reedy seems to think are stingy voters – yet APS voters consistently open their wallets for the district. In fact, the last time all measures on an APS ballot were defeated was in 2002. The biggest proposed tax hike – a mill levy increase costing $510 million in new taxes over six years – lost by more than a two-to-one margin, with about 72,000 voters turning thumbs down compared with about 32,000 in support.

How does that not send a message?

Speaking of sending messages. Are our lawmakers and governor in Santa Fe listening? While concern over APS performance and accountability played a factor in these results, so, too, did New Mexicans’ frustration with rising taxes. Many Journal letter writers voiced concern about APS’ tax increase at the same time city and county taxes have gone up and lawmakers are proposing myriad increases this legislative session.

Sadly, the first mill levy question, which was not an increase but a continuation of a current tax and would have brought in $190 million over six years, would have paid for much-needed maintenance. It should have been approved but failed miserably. And while some of that money could have been used for safety upgrades, APS cynically tried to blackmail voters by putting the relatively small amount earmarked for safety, $20 million, in one of the new tax, high-dollar, ballot questions.

So instead of the simple mill levy extension, which would have generated additional new money every year as property values rise by 3 percent annually, the tone-deaf APS administration and its rubber-stamp board majority included the two shoot-for-the-moon packages. Now, APS is in the unenviable position of having to prioritize projects and maintenance based on getting no dollars from the election.

“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,” Reedy said. “We review, we adjust, adapt, revamp and rewrite, if necessary.”

That new lesson plan should include a focus on what caused these proposals to fail. It starts with a commitment to fiscal transparency and accountability, and the acknowledgement that any tax increase must be moderate and thoroughly explained. It continues with a promise to deliver student academic achievement. And it ends with the understanding that most people support our public schools but need to see both that commitment and that promise in action before making it even harder on themselves to pay their bills.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.