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West Siders Push for Break From APS

By Andrea Schoellkopf
Journal Staff Writer
    One day after voters approved a 5.6 percent property tax increase to build new schools, Albuquerque Public Schools faces efforts from both the city and West Side residents to wrest control from the district.
    Leaders of the West Side Coalition of Neighborhood Associations have begun to plan for a feasibility study that could lead to creation of a new district west of the Rio Grande.
    At the same time, Albuquerque Mayor Martin Chávez continues to assail APS in an attempt to assume control over the state's largest district.
    "I see failure in our schools," he said during his address Monday at the Hispano Chamber of Commerce Hispanic Heritage Luncheon, which included top APS officials. "Kids don't fail adults; adults fail kids, and we are failing our kids. I'm not going to let go of this until we have true, meaningful reform."
    A spokesman for Gov. Bill Richardson restated earlier comments that the governor wants to see debate on the mayor's proposal.
    "Some school districts across the country appear to have benefited from mayoral control over school finances or school board appointments," said spokesman Gilbert Gallegos. "Governor Richardson ... looks forward to hearing how the mayor intends to hold schools accountable for spending decisions."
    APS board president Paula Maes said that while the coalition's proposal would rid the district of its most overcrowded and underperforming schools, "it wouldn't be a good thing for kids on the West Side."
    Maes said the West Side represents only 15 percent of the district's tax base.
    "Where are they going to get the money?" she said. "They're not thinking straight."
    Coalition vice president Dan Serrano said Wednesday he's heard nothing but support for the split. "Most of them are West Siders saying we need to get behind you on this thing," he said.
    Reached Wednesday, Chávez said that 10 years ago he would not have supported a split, but with West Side growth and development, "it may be a feasible option and should be studied again."
    "You would have a healthy dose of competition," he said. "I see now it makes sense."
    But Maes said Tuesday's bond passage with more than 57 percent (22,405 for, 16,537 against) didn't help the mayor's position.
    "If the bond had failed, I think the mayor would have had a lot better ground to stand on because he would have said, 'Look, the community doesn't trust APS to manage this huge amount of money,' '' Maes said. "It's going to be harder for him to say that now."
    Maes cautioned the coalition to make sure it had the support of all 31,000 students west of the river, "not just the 3,000 at Cibola."
    Neighborhood leaders south of Interstate 40 said they do not support a break from APS and had not been consulted by the West Side Coalition.
    "I don't mind a study," said former APS board member Matthew Archuleta. "However, I think that anything is so premature right now. It's a West Side district that would be saddled with debt like there's no tomorrow."
    Marcia Fernandez, head of the South Valley Coalition of Neighborhood Associations, said members brought up a possible split recently and informally "said it was a bad idea."
    According to state statute, the state Public Education Department may order the creation of a new school district at the request of the local school board upon receipt of a petition bearing signatures of 60 percent of registered voters in the proposed new district, or upon recommendation by the state secretary of education.
    APS attorney Art Melendres said the board is not legally required to use the money raised Tuesday for West Side schools.
    The bond question stated the request was for $351 million in property taxes for improvements "within the school system."
    However, changing the much-promoted plan "would probably be viewed as breaking faith with the basis upon which the voters were asked to approve the bond election," he added.
    Melendres said any bonds that have been issued would be the responsibility of taxpayers in both a new and old district. Any assets within the new district, such as school buildings and land, become an asset of the new district.
    Two years ago, the APS board voted unanimously to keep the district whole. The West Side board member was absent. An Albuquerque Journal poll at the time showed 44 percent of voters surveyed favored a West Side district, with 36 percent opposed.
    Board member Robert Lucero first introduced the new district concept in June 2004, saying APS wasn't moving fast enough to resolve overcrowding issues. Prior to that, various South Valley leaders often pitched the idea based on their own dissatisfaction with APS.
    In 2002, then-Gov. Gary Johnson vetoed a bill that would have allowed Albuquerque voters to decide whether they wanted to split the district. In 1993, a task force that looked at the feasibility of a split ended up recommending against it.
    Journal staff writers Amy Miller and Susan Stiger contributed to this report.