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Editorial: APS knew tax plan would fail, had $1M vote anyway

Albuquerque Public Schools officials plan to siphon off up to $3 million in operations money – which should pay for things like teacher salaries and day-to-day expenses – to patch roofs and fix pipes in the wake of voters soundly rejecting the district’s over-the-top tax questions. It’s sad, unfair and wasn’t necessary. In fact, APS brass knew last fall it was likely to go down this way. Yet like a gambling addict they ignored warning signs, held a million-dollar special election and prayed results wouldn’t come up snake eyes.

Which they did.

APS could have focused on continuing a mill levy that would have raised $30 million a year for six years for maintenance and equipment without raising taxes. That would have made sense given voters’ tax fatigue – the city and county have raised the gross receipts tax multiple times in recent years and talk of the Legislature raising taxes on everything from gas to income has been around for months. And that would have kept APS’ maintenance and equipment budget intact.

But the siren song of a new building jackpot was too strong to resist. So APS also asked voters to sign off on two questions worth $710 million that would have resulted in a property tax increase of 4.7 percent for most property owners in the district. The bump for a homeowner with a house valued at $220,000 would have been $147 a year. Voters overwhelmingly rejected all three proposals in a mail-in election that concluded Feb. 5.

District officials reacted with surprise, and Superintendent Raquel Reedy said APS had asked for a bit to help the children but voters were more concerned with their wallets. What she didn’t say was APS knew better and went ahead anyway.

In response to an Inspection of Public Records Request, APS produced documents showing it had commissioned a survey by Research and Polling Inc. in November that cast serious doubt on voters approving a tax increase. The two measures that would have raised taxes were upside down in the polling results, with around 40 percent “strongly opposed” compared to a “strongly support” in the mid 20s. You didn’t have to be a graduate in statistics to realize chances were pretty slim.

The only measure with stronger support than opposition was the one that continued the mill levy and raised $190 million for maintenance without a tax hike. Nevertheless, APS officials charged ahead with their three-pronged Cadillac plan and even now say they weren’t influenced by the $21,000 poll they commissioned because they based the ballot questions on “needs.”

That’s called jonesing for a bad bet. Instead of scaling back the question, preserving maintenance funding and focusing on the most pressing construction needs, APS officials read the message they wanted and rolled the dice on all three questions and 34 construction projects. In defending this ill-fated strategy, Master Plan Executive Director Kizito Wijenje says the poll “does not play into the decision as to whether or not we are going to have an election.” But he adds: “What this poll does is kind of like taking a finger on the pulse.”

Well, it did that, showing the patient was not long for this world, likely in part because of APS’ declining enrollment and the public’s higher opinion of charters. Fifty percent of those surveyed gave charters an A or B vs. 23 percent who gave that top rating to APS. That’s also “taking a finger on the pulse.”

The sad result of the administration’s hubris is that APS, which regularly decries its budget woes, isn’t up $710 million; it’s down $190 million, plus $1 million for the election, plus $21,000 for the poll. Now it must freeze athletic, fine arts, music, library and science funds and dip into classroom money to pay for roof repairs and leaky pipes that just can’t wait.

Top district officials and some board members knew the odds of a tax increase victory were too long and the risks of a revenue loss were too high, yet they gambled anyway and lost it all. Now teachers, staff and students will be paying the price.

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.