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Moving forward after the school board’s big vote

Acequia Madre Elementary School was one of the three schools proposed for closure under a measure rejected by the Santa Fe School Board late Wednesday night. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

Mayor Alan Webber weighed in with a message to the Santa Fe school board Wednesday, several hours before the board’s difficult, 3-2 vote against closing three small schools, which had been proposed as a way to spread school district resources more equitably toward where the vast majority school-aged children now live in Santa Fe.

“I want to express my opposition to the Santa Fe Public Schools voting to close any schools at tonight’s School Board meeting,” the mayor opined. “Let’s change the conversation from voting to close schools to working to build our city.”

Board member Rudy Garcia said at Wednesday night’s meeting that the mayor also had given him a call earlier in the day.

Supporters of closing smaller, older schools in east and central Santa Fe say the bigger schools in Garcia’s south side district are getting short shrift with continued operation of the small schools amid declining enrollments overall. So Garcia had been considered a likely vote for closing the small schools – the Nava, Acequia Madre and E.J. Martinez elementary schools.

But instead he was the crucial third vote to keep three schools open. Well, crucial for now, anyway, as the school board elections on Tuesday created a certain majority, come January, in favor of studying other ways to change in the district instead of closing the three schools. Garcia didn’t say if Webber’s call had influenced his vote.

Webber’s news release appeared to suggest he should have been brought into the school-closing situation earlier.

“We need to plan together when it comes to the connection between housing, jobs, transportation and education.” he said. “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 school district did in fact try that in recent years, when the possibility was raised of having city police officers work as school resource officers. The city said firmly it didn’t have the people or money to help – before much debate over having armed officers on campus even took place – and the idea was quickly dropped.

In any case, now that Webber has brought it up, there are, of course, plenty of other issues where schools and city government can and should cooperate, such as:

• Buses. There is some discussion of busing students from the lower-income south side neighborhoods to the successful, smaller, older east side schools, as a matter of fairness.

The east side schools, with declining student populations in more affluent neighborhoods, are heavily used by students who transfer in from other school zones. Publicly financed busing to transfer students theoretically would open up opportunities for south and west side students whose families can’t provide hauling services back and forth across town a couple of times day. So the city maybe could chip in on that effort, with money or buses.

But the first question is whether busing is really a way to create a more equitable system. South side residents could argue that a better solution is to shut down the older small schools that don’t have enough students in their own neighborhoods any more and build attractive, small schools on the south side.

• Housing. One solution to declining enrollments in the east side schools could be development of more affordable housing for families in or near the older schools. That means housing that a family with a moderate income and kids can afford.

Nava Elementary, on Siringo Road, could get a boost along these lines if the city creates appropriate housing on the city-owned Midtown Campus nearby.

The city also seems to be promoting apartments along the St. Michael’s Drive corridor between St. Francis and Cerrillos. Kids living there could go to Nava or E.J. Martinez, which is on the other side of that crucial economic demarcation line – St. Francis – but not too far.

There is little possibility, however, of moderate-income families being accommodated near small Acequia Madre, located in a swanky area. There is no need for NIMBYism to fight off affordable housing units there, because the real estate prices do all the work.

The proponents of more study also mention redrawing school zones or magnet schools as options.

And it seems that in the future, small schools like those preferred by the people who filled the school board’s meeting room this week, should be considered whenever new construction is necessary, although costs – for instance, the Legislature has dropped a small school funding bonus – will always be an issue.

Closing the old small schools would have been a quick and simple strike in the name of equity. But killing off institutions so beloved by so many, uprooting students and probably eroding crucial support for public schools in the process, was too much at this moment.

What Board president Kate Noble, and to some degree the mayor, seem to be talking about now is consideration of a major restructuring of the school district and how it determines where students can go to learn.

“Why not take this opportunity and really re-think the model?” Noble said Wednesday night. “Conditions are perfect right now for a whole rebirth of this district.”

Okay. But that’s a monumental task. Somehow, the love for those old small schools, their records of success and their sense of belonging, must be balanced with also doing the best for those who can’t be in those schools.

Every student in Santa Fe deserves the love and supportive community spirit that small school parents described on Wednesday night.