SANTA FE — A yearslong discussion over closing small public schools in Santa Fe — proposed as a way to more equitably use school district resources — apparently came to an end late Wednesday when the school board rejected the latest school-closing proposal in a 3-2 vote.
Board members Lorraine Price and Maureen Cashmon supported closing Acequia Madre and E.J. Martinez elementary schools, in the city’s affluent north and east sides, along with midcity Nava Elementary, despite an uproar from small-school parents and supporters.
Price and Cashmon cited the district’s declining student enrollment at the elementary level, student capacity at some elementary school sites, shifts in student population and equity issues as Santa Fe’s school-age population shifts away from older, more affluent neighborhoods.
But the three other school board members instead approved a plan not to close any schools and take time to study inequity and other issues including interzone transfers, rezoning school boundaries to address declining enrollment and aging school facilities.
Acequia Madre, in particular, has a large number of students who transfer in from other school zones.
The board voted after a three-hour public forum during which more than 60 people spoke — virtually all of them opposing the proposed closures.
Mandy Mendoza, whose daughter is a third grader at E.J. Martinez, said the board has been considering closing the schools for too long. This is the third time in recent years the board has talked about closing schools.
“This is some crazy déjà vu,” she said. “Why are we here again?”
Others cited statistics, studies and best practices that support the benefits of small schools and stressed the important role the schools play in their neighborhoods.
Diane Garcia, a kindergarten teacher at E.J. Martinez who has worked in the school district for 24 years, described her school and Nava as “precious jewels in the heart of Santa Fe.”
“If you take that away, it will never recover,” she said.
Some of the debate veered into the income or cultural differences among Santa Fe neighborhoods.
Garcia referred to one of Santa Fe’s dividing lines — St. Francis Drive. “What is the difference once you cross St. Francis?” she said. “Well it is community.”
School board member Rudy Garcia, who represents south side schools, said he “didn’t appreciate” that comment. “We have communities on the south side, too,” he said.
Rudy Garcia voted against the school closures, along with Steve Carrillo and board president Kate Noble.
Cashmon said the small school supporters hadn’t talked about any south side schools and there has been talk of busing south side kids to “better schools.”
“I will tell you, the kids on the south side deserve to stay in their neighborhoods if they desire, and to imply that they would receive a better education on the east side is insulting… ,” she said.
Cashmon noted that the district stood to lose $442,000 in funding with the Legislature’s recent elimination of a small-school size adjustment. “We have to make up that money one way or another,” said Cashmon, who was subjected to some heckling from the audience.
Price, a former teacher and administrator with SFPS, said she has been fighting inequity since she came to the district in 1989. “You don’t plan when a crisis hits you, you plan to avoid a crisis. And that’s what we’re trying to do,” she said.
Carrillo said closing schools takes away opportunities and choices for students and their parents. “I know we can do this through transportation and rezoning, not school closures,” he said.
Garcia mentioned he had received a call earlier in the day from Mayor Alan Webber, who publicly chimed in on the issue with a news release. “The City and the School District need to work together on issues of inclusivity, equity, performance, and opportunity,” he said, noting the interconnection between the city and schools with regard to housing, jobs, transportation and education. “You can’t simply take a vote on closing a few schools without looking at the bigger picture and without talking with your closest partner.”
The board decided by the same 3-2 count to approve a resolution brought by Noble. It called for the school district to adopt the National School Boards Association’s commitment to equity and directed Superintendent Veronica García to come back with a process, framework and projected budget to study many related issues by the end of February. The resolution calls for a process that “will include the engagement of stakeholders, demographers and experts in various disciplines” to address interzone transfers, school boundaries, curricular-focused programs, cultural diversity, distance learning and other matters.
“Why not take this opportunity and really re-think the model,” she said. “Conditions are perfect right now for a whole rebirth of this district.”
The board considered the fact that two of its members would no longer be serving on the board after the first of the year. Carrillo lost his reelection bid to Carmen Gonzales and Sarah Boses won the seat being vacated by Cashmon in the school board elections on Tuesday. Both Gonzales and Boses stated during their campaigns that they were opposed to closing any schools.