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Santa Fe school board OKs program to reach dropouts

SANTA FE – The Engage Santa Fe program designed to recapture students who have dropped out of school and put them back on track to receive a standard diploma will move forward, despite assertions by one school board member and the local teachers union president that it represents the first privatization of schools in New Mexico.

On Tuesday, the Santa Fe school board approved by a 4-1 vote a contract with Florida-based Atlantic Education Partners to run the program, which targets students age 16-21 who are under-credited, truant and not enrolled in high school.

Earlier this month, the district accepted a bid from the company to run the program because it did not have the funds to run it itself.

The National Education Association New Mexico announced its objection to the plan on Monday, saying the way the program was set up established an improper use of taxpayer dollars under the New Mexico Constitution.

Under the contract, 90 percent of the funding for the Engage Santa Fe program is to go to Atlantic Education Partners and the rest is to be kept by the district to cover operational costs. Taxpayer money coming to Santa Fe Public Schools through the state school funding formula would fund the program.

While teachers to run the program will be hired locally, the union says they will be Atlantic Education Partners employees.

The program is expected to be in place by the second semester of the next school year as an alternative pathway to graduation under the district’s secondary school reform plan.

Board member Glenn Wikle cast the lone vote against approving the contract, agreeing with the union’s position. He cited a portion of the constitution that addresses educational institutions and use of proceeds from state land and other educational funds and maintained that the school district would not control the funding.

“I do not believe that Santa Fe Public Schools has exclusive control when this opens. I would say the contractor, Atlantic Education Partners, has exclusive control,” he said. “This is a legal issue. This represents a foothold on private education. What we are witnessing is the moving in of billionaire right-wing privatizers.”

Superintendent Joel Boyd insisted that wasn’t the case.

“This is not their entity, it’s ours,” he said of the program.

Boyd said that the district has contracted with many outside entities to perform academic services, and this is no different.

Board President Steven Carrillo agreed, saying that the idea that Engage Santa Fe amounted to a privatized school was false.

“We need to put that baby to rest,” he said, taking exception to Wikle’s statement. “It’s irresponsible to suggest people we are contracting with are gold digging.”

Carrillo said the district wasn’t privatizing anything because “it is our program. We’re not creating a private school.”

Carrillo turned to the district’s general counsel for clarification of the state constitution’s education clause as it relates to the contract.

Attorney Geno Zamora said he believed the contract would not violate the state constitution.

“Schools must have ultimate authority of this program, which this contract maintains,” he said.

Wikle was not convinced, saying the spirit of the clause was to keep outside companies from tapping into state funding intended for public schools, “and we are not keeping privatizers at bay.”

After the vote, NEA Santa Fe President Bernice García Baca addressed the issue during her union update, a regular agenda item.

Though she said her points appeared to be moot, she wanted to make it clear that NEA wasn’t against the concept of the program.

“We love the idea of this school. We’re completely in favor of it,” she said. “What we’re not in favor of is using state funding to support a privatized school. What you’ve done tonight is approved the first privatized school in the state of New Mexico.”

She added that Atlantic Education Partners was a for-profit business that would staff the program with “second-class teachers,” in that they would not be provided insurance or retirement benefits and would not be union members who would have due process rights.

“We do not need to go to a privatized, for-profit firm for this, but perhaps it’s too late,” she said.