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APS: Proposed West Side Split Would Take High-Performers

Copyright © 2009 Albuquerque Journal
By Andrea Schoellkopf
Albuquerque Journal
Journal Staff Writer

          Proponents of a new West Side district say splitting from the 87,000-plus student Albuquerque Public Schools would help improve the education of their students, including those at West Mesa with its dismal graduation rates.
        But opponents, including APS chief Winston Brooks, charge that the proposed district is "cherry picking" its schools, leaving APS with an even more difficult road than it has now.
        Because boundaries of the proposed district leave out many of the poorest neighborhoods, students in the new district would outperform those in the rest of the city, Brooks said.
        If approved, the new district would make it "really hard" for Albuquerque Public Schools "to increase graduation rates and proficiency levels when we get left with the poorest kids," Brooks said.
        The proposal would break off 381 square miles of northwestern APS, taking 21,000 students in 30 APS schools, including West Mesa, Cibola and Volcano Vista high schools, five middle schools, 13 elementaries, one alternative and four charters.
        It would exclude the West Side south of Central, which includes part of the West Mesa High attendance area, and Rio Grande High School, another low-income school with a low graduation rate.
        The Cibola and Volcano Vista areas include new housing developments, with young middle- and upper-middle class families.
        "Economics does drive student performance," Brooks said. "(It's) not because we have better teachers on the Northwest side" that they have higher performance scores.
        APS's graduation rate is 63.5 percent.
        Supporters say the proficiency rate of West Side schools is not good enough. They say a smaller district with a scaled-back administration, such as that modeled by Rio Rancho, would be more responsive to needs of the classroom.
        APS analyzed proficiency rates at the 22 schools within the proposed boundaries and found:
        • Northwest elementary students outperformed the rest of APS overall by 5 percent in math and 8 percent in reading in 2008-09 state tests.
        • Middle school students outperformed the rest of APS by 6 percent in math and 4 percent in reading.
        • High school students were 3 percent higher in reading, but lagged behind the rest of APS by 1 percent in math.
        The Southwest Alliance of Neighbors, which represents the Westgate and Alamosa neighborhoods outside the proposed boundaries, opposes a split, president Klarissa Pena said. "Right now, all resources, time and effort should be put into the dropout rate rather than the split."
        Five years ago, those calling for a new district argued that West Side schools were overcrowded, with 3,000-student high schools and elementaries topping 1,000.
        With millions pumped into construction, overcrowded schools are no longer an issue, Brooks said.
        Supporters have two options: They can seek approval directly from the state education secretary or they can submit to the local school board a petition with signatures from 60 percent of voters in the proposed district. The petition would go to the state Public Education Department for final approval.
        Backers are going directly to Garcia, who said she has asked the state attorney general for guidance.
        'They didn't include future growth'
        Last month, supporters bought an advertisement in the Journal's West Side section criticizing the Albuquerque district: "APS is failing. APS is simply too big to succeed. Based on recent APS test scores and high school dropout rates, our children's future is in jeopardy ..."
        A "smaller West Side School District would give our kids a better education, bring parents into the process, and increase performance," the ad stated.
        Brooks disputes claims that smaller is better. He notes that APS is the largest district in the state and outperforms the state average.
        The superintendent said it is apparent the group formed by a group called Partnerships Advancing Student Success is running a campaign of sorts. The ad "basically says APS sucks and we can do better," he said.
        He questioned claims that the new district could operate without raising property taxes. The area, he said, will become overburdened with new housing developments.
        "They didn't include (future) growth," he said. "They don't have a football stadium."
        Although West Siders would be liable for past bond debt, Dan Serrano, a lead proponent, said he expects most of the short-term bonds for West Side construction would be significantly paid down by the time a split occurred.
        However, West Side residents would also be liable for their portion of the district's entire bond debt, both east and west of the river, APS spokesman Rigo Chavez said.
        Serrano said 300 people have signed on to support a new district. "If you want to call it an educational campaign, we're doing that," said Serrano, who is working with West Side neighborhood official Laura Horton.
        'We need more clarity'
        Supporters have raised about $12,000 from local residents, and expenses include $800 for the Journal ad and $3,000 for 20,000 fliers, plus printing costs. Backers include Sen. Bernadette Sanchez, D-Albuquerque, and APS board member Robert Lucero.
        State Rep. Antonio "Moe" Maestas, however, disputed the group's claims that he is also a supporter and said Friday that he had only signed on in support of a feasibility study and does not support a split.
        "APS has been incredibly responsive to West Side needs in the recent past," said Maestas, a West Side Democrat who would still like to see greater West Side representation on the school board.
        The supporters' 141-page report, presented to Garcia in July, pointed to Rio Rancho Public Schools as a model. Rio Rancho was created in 1994 after residents approved a bond that effectively provided funding for it. Previously, the city had been split up between Albuquerque Public Schools and the Jemez Valley district.
        The new West Side district would be about three times the size of Rio Rancho and could be the state's third largest district after Albuquerque and Las Cruces.
        The district would include $2.9 billion in assessed property values, compared with $2.2 billion for Rio Rancho, according to a study by the Rio Rancho district's bond adviser, who was helping the group at the request of a friend.
        Garcia met with APS in November to discuss the proposal but said the district has still not provided her information about the effect of a split, student growth projections, transportation and other issues.
        Garcia has asked the AG how to proceed because the relevant state law was written before her Cabinet-level position was created.
        "I think a decision of this magnitude, either way, can be challenged in court," she said. "I think we need a little more clarity."

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