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Editorial: APS cutting mid-school sports just doesn’t add up

With just a few weeks of school left and summer in the air, wouldn’t it be nice, to paraphrase the Beach Boys, if the state’s largest school district crafted a budget that puts kids first?

Of course – but it sure looks like the APS administration is not ready to catch that wave.

Instead, the administration has proposed cutting middle-school athletics – before officials even know how much state funding the district will/won’t receive for next fiscal year. It’s a move that appears designed more for shock value than an earnest attempt to balance a top-heavy budget.

No doubt the district is facing serious financial challenges – and there will be painful cuts. Yet in a school district that has a $700 million annual operations budget, 35 administrators making six-figure salaries, a planned unnecessary employee health center that will cost an estimated $4 million a year to run and a $94 million reserve fund, killing intermural volleyball, basketball, and track and field for sixth- through eighth-graders to save about $580,000 amounts to a cheap shot.

As well as a huge disservice to the roughly 3,400 kids who compete.

Gov. Susana Martinez’s office has called on the district to reverse “their disappointing decision to de-fund 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. There’s no excuse for this – period.”

APS spokeswoman Monica Armenta – one of the administrators making over $100K a year – says the cuts are necessary to help absorb an anticipated $12.4 million reduction in state funding. That reduction comes on top of lower enrollment and higher expenses – both of which APS should have anticipated – which collectively will cost the district another $13.7 million.

It means APS could end up short by $26.1 million for fiscal 2018. APS Superintendent Raquel Reedy told her school board Monday night “the fact is middle school sports is $600,000 – it is a small portion of the $26 million that they are going to have to cut. This is massive, massive, and it is going to hit everyone.”

So the first pitch targets pre-teens and teens who likely have no other exposure to athletics?

No other district has gone there, though all are in the same boat waiting on a still-to-be-determined special legislative session to deliver a budget that the governor will sign for the fiscal year that starts July 1.

Meanwhile, APS could save $4.3 million by returning to a class schedule it never should have left – both for academic and fiscal reasons.

APS’ 7/6 high school schedule – in use in the 2015-16 school year – was modeled after Rio Rancho Public Schools, which has stronger graduation rates and test scores. That schedule meant students saw their teachers in core English and math classes more often while still getting longer 90-minute periods for things like science labs. And it meant teachers had one planning period. Yet, at teachers union urging, the district dumped it after a year and went to the current 7/5 schedule, in which teachers teach five of the school day’s seven periods and the district spends around $4.3 million to hire more teachers to cover that second “Professional Learning Communities” planning period.

It’s an unfair system that benefits high school teachers while short-changing their elementary and middle-school colleagues.

Meanwhile, barely 28 percent of APS students are proficient in reading and 20 percent are proficient in math.

APS is now considering switching back to the 7/6 schedule and eliminating the Professional Learning Communities period. It should immediately, no matter what the budget numbers turn out to be.

Given the state’s dire revenue picture – owed in no small part to the steep decline in oil and gas revenues over the past decade – APS is smart to plan for funding cuts, just like every other public agency in the state is having to do. But making middle-school athletics a sacrificial lamb when the district has yet to justify the millions it spends on administration smacks of political opportunism and scare tactics.

APS’ graduation rate is on a downhill slide – 61.7 percent of the class of 2015 earned their caps and gowns, compared with 62.7 percent in 2014 and 68.7 percent in 2013. (The statewide graduation rate is 68.6 percent and Rio Rancho’s is over 82 percent.)

Targeting middle-schoolers whose enthusiasm for school is fueled by the structure and camaraderie of athletics programs – kids whose families can ill afford club sports outside of school (remember, nearly 75 percent of APS students qualify for free or reduced-price meals because of low family incomes) – isn’t going to change that trajectory.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.