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Lawsuit contends APS/CNM bond, mill levy election is invalid

Copyright © 2016 Albuquerque Journal

A local attorney has filed a lawsuit against Albuquerque Public Schools and Central New Mexico Community College, contending their Feb. 2 bond and mill levy election is invalid.

Robert Pidcock’s 21-page complaint, filed in 2nd Judicial District Court on Feb. 15, contends the election violated state law in several ways:

  • APS changed the $375 million tax mill levy rate 12 days before the election from $3.874 per $1,000 of taxable residential property value to $3.838. The lawsuit alleges APS is required to publish ballot questions at least 50 days beforehand.
  • APS plans to build a $4.9 million employee health clinic, which Pidcock says is not a “school building” under state law and therefore disqualified from bond funds.
  • There was a lack of information on the ballot about the individual APS and CNM capital projects to be funded by the money. Voters were asked to consider three items – APS’ $375 million mill levy and $200 million bond and CNM’s $84 million bond – not any specific projects.

According to Pidcock, the vague wording means the two institutions are “legally free to spend all of the money on any construction projects they wish, regardless of the promises made by APS and CNM prior to the election to convince voters to support the tax and bonds.”

  • APS and CNM engaged in “logrolling,” or combining unrelated issues in one ballot question as a result of the lack of specific projects on the ballot. Voters had to approve or reject all the projects at once even if they agreed, or disagreed, with some of them.

APS and CNM both said in emailed statements that they believe they complied with all laws. Both declined to speak any further on the pending litigation.

Pidcock told the Journal he filed the lawsuit because he wants to support local children and hold APS accountable.

“Somebody has to shine a light on what is happening here, especially with this APS-only health clinic,” Pidcock said. “I think somebody has lost their way here and lost the focus of what this is all supposed to be about, where all this money is supposed to be going and what good it is supposed to be doing.”

An attorney specializing in personal injury law, Pidcock is a graduate of the University of New Mexico and ran for a 1st Congressional District seat as a Democrat in 2008.

He said it is up to the court to decide a remedy if it agrees with his claim that there are problems with the election.

The bonds and mill levy were approved by a comfortable margin in an election that was closely watched after controversy over a lack of early voting sites on the West Side. More than 30,000 people cast ballots – roughly double the average of a school bond election.

Pidcock told the Journal he doesn’t know if APS and CNM have ever spent bond and mill levy money for projects that were not presented to voters, but the bottom line is that “legally they have no requirement whatsoever” to stick to their promises.

APS and CNM bond and mill levy elections have followed the same format for years, with voters not asked to consider individual projects.

During a Feb. 3 news conference on the election results, APS capital master plan executive director Kizito Wijenje said the district faces a lot of scrutiny about its use of bond money.

“We have multiple layers of accountability,” he said, citing the involvement of a citizen committee and the APS Board of Education, as well as the open bid process.

Wijenje said the district will tell anyone about the progress of any of the capital projects funded by the bond/mill levy.