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APS freezes spending on facility maintenance

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

Following the defeat of its $900 million mill levy and bond package, Albuquerque Public Schools is freezing facility maintenance spending.

At a meeting Monday morning, Chief Operations Officer Scott Elder said expenditures that would normally be paid through a maintenance mill levy will be halted until the district can fully analyze its fiscal situation.

Custodial work, which comes from operational money, will continue. But things such as plumbing and infrastructure repairs will be more of a challenge, and the district will have to re-evaluate how to fund the basic facility maintenance operations.

“I want to make it very, very clear this does not mean we will not maintain our facilities. … We are not going to put students or staff at risk,” Elder said. “We will take care of them. However, the way we take care of them may be a little different.”

Last week, 64 percent of voters decided not to renew the mill levy that would have replenished the district’s facility maintenance money – $190 million over six years.

Elder told the Board of Education that the district’s stream of maintenance funding – from the Senate Bill 9 mill levy – will run out by July.

“So, our first step will be to place a freeze on all SB 9 spending and to be very cautious with what we do in terms of our maintenance spending,” he said.

Since APS needs about $15 million a year to upkeep current facilities, Elder said the district will see how much of that can be funded by the mill levy before it runs out.

But that won’t account for the entire $15 million, and money from the district’s operational budget will be needed to make up the difference, he said.

“It means $15 million that technically we’re not going to recover,” Elder said. “We are going to have to dip into operational to maintain what we have to maintain and that has an impact on salaries. That has an impact on equipment.”

Planned science, library, physical education and fine arts equipment purchases will not be made because of the election results, Elder said.

And money dedicated to minor school projects will also be frozen.

“Things that make it a little bit nicer – but not needs – they will not be able to do that. We will have to freeze that and hold onto that,” he said.

While Elder noted the district is taking “painful” steps forward, he also assured that facility maintenance will still occur in some capacity. Though, the scope of what the district will be able to do is going to decrease, he explained.

Elder also said APS will likely have to take this question to the voters again.

“At some point, we will have to go forward to recover SB 9 money,” he said. “We have to recover those funds.”

It wasn’t just the maintenance tax that was struck down by voters.

All three of APS’ ballot questions failed. A mill levy increase question and a bond, both of which would have resulted in higher property taxes, were voted down by 69 percent and 57 percent, respectively.

APS will still get money from the second mill levy question at the current rate for another three years.

Still, Elder said the district will have to reprioritize its capital master plan.

For instance, he said security and safety of schools will stay at the top of the list, but some construction projects that were planned will not move forward.

Funding uncertainty is already manifesting itself in some projects.

At the meeting, the board was slated to vote on the second phase of work at Janet Kahn School of Integrated Arts, but deferred that decision until costs could be officially nailed down.

“As far as I’m concerned, this is a fantastic design and fantastic project, but we aren’t going to be able to do it until we get voter approval,” David Peercy, board president, said.

He added that voters need to see the ripple effects of the election results.

“We told (the voters) we needed these funds to do the job. We cannot do the job now. Period,” Peercy said.

The first APS Capital Outlay, Property and Technology committee meeting since the district’s special, mail-in election ranged from times of contention and defensiveness to some somber moments.

Member Lorenzo Garcia called the election results a “taxpayer revolt” and said misinformation was the cause.

He also defended the district’s fiscal history, pointing to water and energy conversation strides in APS.

“We’ve done a lot to move this district forward; let me be very clear. We have been and will continue to be good stewards of public money,” he said.

And there was some introspection.

The board and Elder expressed regrets for the ballot language, saying it was in hindsight too confusing for voters.

Elder said legal counsel advised the ballot wording after APS was sued over elections in the past.