Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal
Albuquerque Public Schools Superintendent Raquel Reedy addressed a divided board of education Monday about a controversial plan to drop middle school athletics, saying the district is struggling to cover a “staggering” projected budget cut.
“The fact is that the reaction to this one proposed change was very telling for us in how emotional this whole thing is and is going to be,” Reedy said during a board finance committee meeting. “The kind of reaction we are getting just breaks my heart because you see just how many more things we are going to have to look at.”
APS announced a proposal to drop its middle school sports program on Thursday, prompting a backlash from parents and condemnation from Gov. Susana Martinez. The move would eliminate competitive basketball, volleyball and track and field, saving about $600,000.
APS needs the board’s approval to move forward with the budget, including the middle school sports cut. A vote is scheduled for May 22, and the New Mexico Public Education Department will review the budget in early June.
APS is trying to find $26 million to cover a projected 2 percent budget cut for the next fiscal year, though the final numbers will not be determined until the Legislature’s special session.
Martinez’s office hit back at APS again on Monday, calling for a reversal of “their disappointing decision to defund middle school athletics when the district has tens of millions in reserves.”
“Sports programs help keep kids active and healthy while also encouraging them to aim for higher grades,” said Deputy Chief of Staff Nick Piatek in an emailed statement. “There’s no excuse for this – period.”
At Monday’s meeting, board members said they had received many calls and emails from concerned constituents over the weekend.
Several board members stressed that middle school athletics is especially important for lower-income families who can’t afford to pay for club sports. Currently, about 3,400 students are taking part in the program.
“This is an equity issue,” said board member Barbara Petersen. “We already have these huge inequalities.”
Board member Analee Maestas, a longtime school administrator, argued that sports are critical for students’ development.
“I have very strong feelings about athletics itself, as I have many grandchildren and I see the difference in mental ability, being more responsive and doing better in school when they are involved,” Maestas said. “I would plead to everybody to think about equity.”
But Reedy reiterated that the district has been forced to look at every option to cover the reduction – and said more tough decisions are coming.
The 2 percent budget cut plan lists a number of unpopular prospects, including larger class sizes, a heavier high school schedule and reduced employee workdays.
“The fact is middle school sports is $600,000 – it is a small portion of the $26 million that are going to have to cut,” Reedy said. “This is massive, massive, and it is going to hit everyone.”
The New Mexico Public Education Department claims Albuquerque Public Schools is spending $1.4 million each year on public relations and lobbying, areas it could cut to preserve middle school sports, but the district disputes that figure.
APS puts the total at around $680,000 per year, according to a budget breakdown requested by the Journal.
The difference comes down to the definition of public relations. PED argues that the district’s graphic design services and radio station, KANW, belong in that category; APS says they don’t.
“APS is prioritizing politics and their own bank accounts over New Mexican students,” said Education Secretary Hanna Skandera in an emailed statement. “No other district is doing this, and it is unfair and ridiculous.”
APS administrators countered that their public radio station is rarely used for publicity and the graphic design department is responsible for a variety of documents, including school safety posters.
The district figure covers salaries for four communications staff, one registered lobbyist – Carrie Robin Brunder, director of government affairs and policy – and lobbying services from the Modrall Sperling law firm.
APS spokeswoman Johanna King emphasized that Modrall Sperling’s contract includes general legal advice on legislation, and Brunder spends the majority of her time on district policies and procedures.
The communications staff’s duties also go beyond publicity, King said. They respond to records requests, send out public alerts during emergencies and produce an employee newsletter.
“It should be noted that almost all urban school districts have communications staff, and even some of the smaller school districts in the state – including individual charter schools – have lobbyists,” King said.