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Lawsuit could stop APS projects already underway

Copyright © 2016 Albuquerque Journal

Construction crews are busy renovating physical education classrooms at Valley High, but a judge’s decision to allow a lawsuit against Albuquerque Public Schools to go forward could halt the project and four others that are already underway.

APS has been battling local attorney Robert Pidcock over the legality of February’s bond and mill levy elections, in which voters approved $575 million for the district for everything from computer purchases to security upgrades and new buildings.

Last week, District Judge Nan Nash refused to dismiss the parts of the case related to the $375 million mill levy because voters may not have understood that the levy is a “public schools building tax.” She granted a summary judgment to dismiss claims regarding the $200 million general obligations bond sale.

Although the judge agreed to let the bond sale stand, the decision to allow the suit to proceed regarding the $375 million mill levy may result in APS having to reprioritize all of the projects, said Kizito Wijenje, executive director of the APS capital master plan.

“We just need a ruling, so we know what we need to do,” he said, adding that in the worst case APS may have to repeat the election.

Wijenje provided documents to the Board of Education on Monday projecting five capital projects would be interrupted by the litigation, another seven would not be put to bid and 15 would go unfunded.

APS spokesman Rigo Chavez said the district only has enough money to continue work on the five ongoing projects until October without the bond and mill levy.

Valley High is the furthest along. APS began the $9.4 million renovation in 2015 and needs the new allocation to pay for more than half of the total.

Two other ongoing projects broke ground June 28. Albuquerque High began a $12.5 million renovation to add a commons, rebuilt kitchen and arts classrooms. A new $8.2 million Northwest Family School will offer a mix of classroom instruction and home schooling, following the popular model at Desert Willow Family School.

The last two projects are set to begin in August – crews will start building a $3.2 million classroom block at Oñate Elementary and a $19 million athletic complex at Manzano High.

Wijenje said any construction delays will be costly because inflation increases prices and skilled workers move on to other jobs.

He also wondered whether Bernalillo County officials would be collecting the full $375 million mill levy.

Bernalillo County officials review property tax rates in September and begin collecting Nov. 1, but Wijenje wondered if they would balk at imposing a mill levy that is facing a lawsuit.

A one-year delay on the mill levy would cost APS $65 million, Wijenje said.

Eric W. Schuler, senior assistant county attorney, was not familiar with Pidcock’s lawsuit and couldn’t say how it would affect tax collection.

The lawsuit also named Central New Mexico Community College, which received voter approval to sell $84 million in bonds thanks to the Feb. 2 election. A CNM spokesman declined to comment.

Pidcock argues that CNM and APS did not follow state statute, citing concerns about ballot language and voting locations. He is particularly upset about APS’ planned $5 million employee health clinic, which his lawsuit claims is not a “school building” and therefore disqualified from bond money.