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Editorial: Bad APS decisions, bond issue put voters in a bind

Local voters face a difficult choice.

It hardly seems right to force school children to attend class in 50-year-old buildings with leaking roofs just because the adults in charge of their district are bad financial stewards of public dollars.

But how else do you get those adults’ attention and inject accountability into the system?

In recent months, Albuquerque Public Schools has shelled out:

• $350K to get then-Superintendent Winston Brooks to go away for reasons that are still secret; meanwhile, the district is spending tens of thousands of dollars to keep the investigative report that led to the buyout a secret as the district fights a public records lawsuit by the Journal and KOB-TV.

• $80K to get then-Superintendent Luis Valentino to go away.

• $850K to remodel administrative offices at district headquarters.

• More than $60K to place the chief financial officer on leave – either for fighting an audit of several departments, including his own, and generally “running roughshot” or blowing the whistle on a questionable RFP, depending on whether you believe the displaced CFO or APS.

• $170K to create a vague new job for that same former CFO, Don Moya, which he doesn’t want.

• The cost of a new Dodge Charger for the former CFO – possibly ordered by Moya himself with APS police funds, again depending on whom you believe. Nobody seems to deny he had a Dodge Charger for a “company car.” Fastest Accountant in the West.

• $95K to a district critic to settle a First Amendment lawsuit; $480K in attorney fees to that critic’s lawyers; $288K on its own lawyers before APS decided to settle with the critic.

• $750K to the family of a special education student who says she was inappropriately touched by her teacher in what the family lawyer claimed was just one of several incidents allowed by the district over the years in a case of pass the bad teacher.

• Nearly $1.7 million to contract law firms and attorneys for the district last year (and $2.2 million in 2014 and $2.3 million in 2013).

Those are just deals Journal reporters have covered.

Now this same school district is asking for $575 million in property taxes and general obligation bonds to improve the built environment for its students.

The Journal has traditionally backed bond issues and supported the district finally putting together a Capital Strategy Plan. Phase One began in 2010 and included a $616 million bond package to refurbish aging buildings and build 13 new schools. Phase Two will be on the Feb. 2 ballot and would continue the public’s investment in APS with two new schools, building renovations, technology upgrades, new security systems and bus depots.

And while there is no question Albuquerque’s elementary students should not be stacked like cordwood in a crowded school, relying on outdated infrastructure and technology – there are plenty of questions about whether the adults who run their district will use all of that $575 million, and the annual $687 million budget, to improve things for those students or for themselves.

APS voters have rejected just one bond issue in 28 years – in 2002, on the heels of the school board suspending then-Superintendent Brad Allison (he received a $383K deal to go away).

Fourteen years later, the adults in charge of APS have again given voters a lot to think about regarding their financial accountability. Early voting starts Jan. 13 and turnout is routinely in the low single digits. It will be telling if more than 10 percent of eligible voters bother to show up at the polls, as they did in 2002, even more so if, once again, they can’t get past the district’s horrible fiscal track record to hand it more cash.

APS students don’t deserve to pay the price for the district’s poor financial decisions. Then again, neither do taxpayers.

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.