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Judge won’t dismiss lawsuit against APS

Copyright © 2016 Albuquerque Journal

A district judge has refused to throw out a lawsuit that contends Albuquerque Public Schools violated state law in its recent bond and mill levy election, which the district says could cost it $65 million over the next year and delay numerous school projects.

Local attorney Robert Pidcock filed the suit on his own behalf in February, outlining a number of complaints about the election process for the $575 million bond and mill levy, and raising particular concerns about a planned $5 million APS employee health clinic, which he argues should not qualify for funding because it is not a “school building.”

But Pidcock stressed that he filed the lawsuit to help kids by forcing APS to be accountable for its bond and mill levy projects.

“This lawsuit is about making sure APS spends money on the kids, not on things like this employee health clinic,” he said.

On Thursday, 2nd Judicial District Court Judge Nan Nash ruled against APS’ request for a summary judgment that would have dismissed the portions of the lawsuit dealing with the $375 million mill levy on property taxes. She stated that she is concerned the ballot language may not have been clear enough for voters to understand that the mill levy is a “public schools building tax.”

A summary judgment was granted regarding the $200 million general obligations bond sale portion of the Feb. 2 election.

Members of the APS Board of Education and district administrators voiced concerns about the lawsuit during Monday night’s capital outlay, property and technology committee meeting before going into a closed session to discuss the case in more detail.

Kizito Wijenje, executive director of the APS capital master plan, warned that the future of the bond and mill levy is unclear.

“We are in uncharted territory,” he said in an interview with the Journal . “This is very disruptive.”

Time is of the essence, Wijenje explained, because APS typically puts projects out to bid in August on a schedule that ensures they will be complete at the beginning of a school year. For instance, the district might need a year to build a new gym building, so work would start next month and end in August 2017 when kids are coming back to school.

If the money is tied up by the lawsuit, APS will be forced to push back many projects for a full calendar year, Wijenje said, a process that would demand a reprioritization of the entire five-year capital master plan.

In addition, Bernalillo County might hesitate to collect the mill levy money from property owners until the lawsuit is settled, Wijenje said, adding up to $65 million lost this school year.

Four community members who spoke at the committee meeting said they were also upset by the lawsuit because APS and Central New Mexico Community College won the bond and mill levy election by a comfortable margin, despite scrutiny over a lack of early voting sites on the West Side.

CNM received voter approval to sell $84 million in bonds thanks to the election. A spokesman for the school declined to comment on the litigation, but said none of the bond projects has started yet.

APS board member Steven Michael Quezada told the Journal he is concerned the lawsuit is hurting students and hopes to find a quick solution.

Quezada mentioned a planned $50 million northwest K-8 school designed to alleviate crowded classrooms and was concerned that it may not be built on schedule.

“We really need that school,” he said.

Pidcock anticipates that his lawsuit will reach the New Mexico Supreme Court relatively quickly, but added that he would have dropped the whole thing if APS had agreed to demands he laid out in a June 14 letter.

The first item states that the employee clinic “is just a nonstarter” because it is not a school building.

He also asks that APS list the bond projects on the ballot by category and spread the voting sites evenly across the city. Finally, he said the district should spend more to “inform the public about the elections,” which typically have very low turnout. The recent election turnout was around 7 percent, according to the county clerk, about twice the average for school elections.

“APS could have resolved all of this a month ago,” Pidcock said. “But they didn’t even respond to the letter.”