Copyright © 2016 Albuquerque Journal
The $575 million bond and mill levy election for Albuquerque Public Schools had slipped Donna Robertson’s mind – then she heard about the controversy over early voting sites.
“I made a special effort,” Robertson said Friday, standing in front of the Don Newton Community Center, one of two early polling places added after outcry that the district’s northwest quadrant had been skipped.
“I would have a hard time figuring out a way to justify leaving one whole section of the city without a convenient way to vote,” she said. “They should be embarrassed. It does make me all the more determined to vote because it was set up that way, and all the more determined to be very careful about how I vote for the same reason.”
APS’ poor track record with superintendents also gave her pause. The two most recent district leaders, Luis Valentino and Winston Brooks, both stepped down amid controversy with large settlement checks.
Robertson was still debating whether she would vote yay or nay as she walked into the community center.
APS officials say, regardless of recent controversies, passage of the bond and mill levy is critical to district operations, and its failure would affect the students most of all. Schools are in line for things like roof repairs to stop leaks and new additions to alleviate crowding.
“The bond has a huge role,” said Kizito Wijenje, capital master plan executive director. “(Losing a bond election) means you lose a year of projects. That has implications down the line.”
Early voting up
So far, voters are turning out in force – by the standards of a bond election.
Over 9,500 people had cast an early ballot at the seven early voting sites as of Friday, about
five times more than typically seen in these elections, according to Bernalillo County Clerk Maggie Toulouse Oliver.
APS’ Central Office had the largest number of voters. The Don Newton Community Center on the West Side was third, even though it only opened Jan. 23. Early voting began Jan. 13 and ran until Saturday.
Bond elections are notorious for low turnout, with an average of around 3 percent.
Research & Polling Inc. President Brian Sanderoff said he’s not sure the high early voter turnout will continue over into Tuesday, election day. But it does raise questions about the election’s outcome.
He said that he usually predicts passage by a wide margin.
“This time, it is a little more suspenseful,” he said. “In recent years, these elections have been below the radar. … This year, we have had tremendous publicity in the closing months about what has happened at APS and the early voting sites. It has changed the dynamics of the election.”
What’s at stake?
APS has more than half-a-billion dollars on the line, $375 million from property taxes and $200 million from general obligation bond sales.
Approval would not raise property taxes, though a “no” from voters would drop them by about $275 for the owner of a $208,000 home.
The funds are slated for a variety of capital projects, particularly school renovation and construction, which accounts for the bulk at $316 million.
Under the plan, Albuquerque’s West Side would get two new schools: the $50 million Northwest K-8, the largest project overall, and the $8.4 million Family School West Side, which offers a mix of classroom instruction and home-schooling.
Another $100 million is allocated for technology like computer upgrades and Internet infrastructure. Other plans include charter school building projects, security improvements and Americans with Disabilities Act compliance.
Perhaps the most contentious project is a new $5 million APS employee health clinic that some argue is unnecessary.
As for the criticism over the limited selection of early voting sites, APS Board of Education members strongly objected to suggestions that the locations were designed to “stack the deck” through placement in areas with heavy support.
“As a board member, I take full responsibility for this oversight,” said board President Don Duran at the Jan. 20 board meeting shortly before a vote on adding the two West Side sites.
“I, for one, did not do it – and I don’t think any member of this board did it to suppress votes. And I resent even being accused of that. We erred, and I am happy we can fix it.”
What if it loses?
With voters in a skeptical mood, the question remains: What would happen at APS if the bond and mill levy were to get a thumbs down?
Wijenje was at the district in 2002 when a bond and mill levy failed amid outrage at the $380,000 buyout for then-Superintendent Brad Allison, who publicly battled alcohol problems.
“It was terrible,” he said. “It took us until 2013 to recover from that. … It is very, very disruptive, not only financially but especially for the kids. You have a generation of kids disrupted for three, four years.”
For instance, Wijenje recalled problems at Ventana Ranch Elementary School, which needed a new wing to serve a growing student body.
Without bond and mill levy money, the addition had no funding, so APS installed a portable building at a cost of more than $1 million – money that could have gone to the construction of the classroom block.
And the need for the lost money didn’t go away.
APS reviewed its projects, reprioritized and brought another mill levy before voters in 2003, which passed.
The district would go through a similar process if Tuesday’s vote fails, though spokesman Rigo Chavez said the board and top administrators would review all options before taking any action.
‘A little more suspenseful’
Marty Esquivel, an attorney and former APS board president, has heard the rumblings from voters but believes the bond/mill levy will get through.
“I wouldn’t have bet on it passing two or three months ago because of all the controversy going around,” he said, citing the drama of former Superintendent Valentino’s resignation after his hand-picked deputy superintendent, Jason Martinez, was found to be facing child sex assault charges in Denver.
Martinez resigned Aug. 18, and Valentino followed Aug. 31 with an $80,000 payout and a positive letter of reference.
The administrative changes roiled the district, but now Esquivel feels that things have settled down.
“I think, unfortunately, apathy will prevail,” he said. “The demonstrated pattern is maybe 2 or 3 percent of the people showing up to vote on these elections. The lower the turnout, the higher the possibility the bond will pass.”
Plus, Esquivel imagines that many voters won’t want to feel like they have harmed children by rejecting a bond and mill levy that would mainly go to improve their schools.
“You have the element of what’s in the best interest of the kids and should you penalize kids for the decisions of the adults,” he said.
Here is a sampling of projects that would be financed by the Albuquerque Public Schools’ bond and mill levy package on Tuesday’s ballot.
NEW NW K-8
Total: $50 million
Project: New K-8 to alleviate growth and overcrowding in the west/far west quadrant.
MANZANO HIGH SCHOOL
Total: $21.9 million
Project: New athletics complex, including Title IX compliance upgrades.
RIO GRANDE HIGH SCHOOL
Total: $15.6 million
Project: Phase 2 of the new physical education complex, including Title IX upgrades. The project includes rebuilding and renovating the physical education/gym facilities to fulfill federal Title IX gender equity requirements.
HIGHLAND HIGH SCHOOL
Total: $15.55 million
Project: Rebuild and renovate existing physical education/gym facilities and addition for Title IX.
MONTGOMERY COMPLEX PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT/MEETING FACILITY
Total: $12.1 million
Project: New district training facility for teachers.
ALBUQUERQUE HIGH SCHOOL
Total: $12 million
Project: New commons, rebuilt kitchen/cafeteria, ancillary spaces and music/dance/art classrooms.
MCKINLEY MIDDLE SCHOOL
Total: $11.3 million
Project: Design and construction of Phase 2 of new classroom block consisting of a two-story section with 10 classrooms, four science labs, two computer labs and a media center.
LA CUEVA HIGH SCHOOL
Total: $11 million
Project: Intensive Support Program (ISP) addition and gym/physical education addition for weight room.
JACKSON MIDDLE SCHOOL
Total: $10.5 million
Project: Phases 1 and 2 of new cafeterias, kitchen and a block of seven classrooms, drama space, administration space and parent room.
APS DISTRICT HEALTH CLINIC
Total: $4.9 million
Project: Design and construction of a new employee health clinic to serve 15,000 district employees.
For the complete list of projects, go to www.aps.edu.