In February, voters chose four new members of the Albuquerque Public Schools Board of Education. The winning candidates all had something in common – an endorsement and cash support from the district’s teachers union.
Their election means that six of the seven current APS board members are union backed.
In the most recent election, the Albuquerque Teachers Federation contributed $5,000 to each of its favorites – Elizabeth Armijo, Lorenzo Garcia, Candy Patterson and David Peercy – helping make them the best-funded candidates in the race.
During the 2015 board race, Analee Maestas received $1,000 from ATF – her single largest contribution. Barbara Petersen was supported by a dozen unions, including ATF, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, and the New Mexico Federation of Labor, collecting a total of $31,981 from all sources.
Currently, Peggy Muller-Aragón is the only APS board member who lacks union support. Elected in 2015, her campaign finance report is the simplest in that race: She received only one major contribution – $15,000 from Gov. Susana Martinez’s political organization.
The former elementary school teacher is often out of step with the rest of the board, casting the lone “no” vote on a variety of policies.
“I bring a different point of view – thank goodness for that,” Muller-Aragón said. “I don’t feel beholden to the union. The only people I am beholden to are the children and the constituents.”
Armijo stressed that she appreciates the union’s support, but is not tied to its positions. The newly elected board member said she would oppose ATF if she felt it was in the district’s best interest.
“I think, first and foremost, I would make sure I always put forward the academic success of children in any decision I make regardless of the support of my constituents, friends, family or union organizations,” she said. “I do think that there will probably come a time where we might be faced with those decisions, all of us on the board, in reference to who supported us.”
In this year’s election, Armijo was the top fundraiser overall, collecting $21,204, according to campaign finance reports filed this month with the Secretary of State’s Office. Garcia came in second with $20,655, followed by Patterson at $18,877 and Peercy at $12,455.
No other candidate raised more than $10,000 and most collected less than $4,000.
Brian Sanderoff, president of Research & Polling Inc., said union support carries heavy weight in board races, particularly because voter participation is typically extremely low.
According to the Bernalillo County Clerk’s Office, about 18,000 people cast ballots in the last APS board election – 6.6 percent turnout.
“Those who do vote have more clout, and that includes a lot of APS employees,” Sanderoff said. “Teacher union backing is an asset for candidates, as we see in this election. It helps you raise money and get voters out.”
While school board races are nonpartisan, the liberal-leaning unions do hope to impact policy by “communicating with candidates and having clout with them,” according to Sanderoff.
Besides the monetary contributions, during each school board race, the Albuquerque Teachers Federation organizes a team of volunteers to campaign for its favorites.
ATF President Ellen Bernstein estimated that about 120 people helped out before the Feb. 7 school board election, putting in long hours to contact constituents.
“We worked really hard,” she said. “There were amazing numbers of volunteers. While we have a little bit of money to put into races, I think what mattered the most was having a lot of people knocking on doors and having conversations.”
‘All for the kids’
In the 2015 race, Muller-Aragón won her northwest Albuquerque district with 63 percent of the vote after a tough battle against incumbent Kathy Korte.
Over the past two years, Muller-Aragón has taken a number of controversial stands, for instance coming out against a union-backed high school schedule change last year, saying teachers who pushed for the lighter load may not be cut out for the profession.
During a Journal interview, Muller-Aragón called the current high school schedule a union initiative that doesn’t make financial sense.
Last year, APS adopted a format that gives teachers two periods a day without students – one period for preparation and one for departmental planning groups called Professional Learning Communities.
The Albuquerque Teachers Federation repeatedly campaigned for that schedule, known as 7/5. The change cost APS roughly $4 million – money that went to hire about 70 additional teachers and staff.
On Friday, APS said the high school schedule will not change next year – a position the union pushed over the past few weeks.
Muller-Aragon believes a return to the old schedule, which cuts the period for Professional Learning Communities, would be financially prudent. She expressed frustration at the district’s reluctance to do so.
“Who is the superintendent? It is not Ellen Bernstein, but it seems like that is who it is,” Muller-Aragón said.
In another break with ATF, Muller-Aragón voted “no” on Raquel Reedy’s appointment as permanent superintendent last April.
Reedy, a longtime APS administrator known for her calm demeanor and listening skills, had received the union’s endorsement.
During the vote, Muller-Aragón said the public should have been more involved in the selection process. Again, she was the only opponent of the plan.
In the Journal interview, Muller-Aragón said she wonders why she doesn’t have union backing.
“I am so surprised that I am not (endorsed by the union) because I was a teacher,” she said. “I’m all for the kids. I think teachers prepare our kids. They touch the future.”
Bernstein, ATF’s president, described the union’s endorsement process as “incredibly thorough.”
Candidates must fill out a questionnaire stating their positions and complete an interview with a panel of people, who email follow-up questions.
“Our focus is always on whether or not they are supportive of collective bargaining, public education and all the issues that are so complex and related to those categories,” Bernstein said.