A hard les­son

Can APS lead­ers learn from vot­ers’ re­sound­ing re­jec­tion of their $900 mil­lion tax plan?

Albuquerque Journal - - OPINION -

Slow learn­ers? Bad at math? In de­nial?

All fair ques­tions given the re­sponse by Al­bu­querque Pub­lic Schools lead­er­ship after vot­ers un­equiv­o­cally re­jected three tax ques­tions on a mail-in bal­lot last week. APS wanted to hit prop­erty own­ers with $900 mil­lion in taxes over the next six years for main­te­nance work and a wish list of cap­i­tal projects.

In a morn­ing-after press con­fer­ence, Su­per­in­ten­dent Raquel Reedy ex­pressed sur­prise the mea­sures went down to de­feat — an elec­toral shel­lack­ing the mag­ni­tude of which is hard to overstate.

“We asked, ‘Could our com­mu­nity sup­port a rel­a­tively small uptick in our taxes for our chil­dren’s schools and for the fa­cil­i­ties they live and learn in?’ ” she said. “They said ‘no.’ ”

Small uptick? The three mea­sures would have raised hun­dreds of mil­lions in NEW prop­erty taxes, jack­ing up the APS tax rate by a whop­ping 19 per­cent. The district pre­ferred to fo­cus on the in­crease in con­text of a to­tal tax bill — an in­crease of about 4.7 per­cent, $147 a year on a home val­ued at $220,000.

In what world is that a “rel­a­tively small uptick?” Not one where half the pop­u­la­tion is on Med­i­caid, one in four res­i­dents is on food stamps and the per capita in­come is just $25,257. And those who main­tain that only prop­erty own­ers would have been af­fected miss the fact the in­crease would have un­doubt­edly been passed along in higher rents and prices of goods.

Reedy said she didn’t see the vote as a ref­er­en­dum on com­mu­nity sen­ti­ment about APS. Rather, she said she thought vot­ers were mo­ti­vated by “their own pri­vate per­sonal sit­u­a­tion.” That’s cer­tainly true to some ex­tent, but given the lop­sided re­sults, it’s also a rose-col­ored glasses way of look­ing at things.

Typ­i­cal turnout for an APS election is in the sin­gle dig­its. More than 28.7 per­cent of el­i­gi­ble vot­ers cast bal­lots in this election, the district’s first mail-in un­der the state’s stream­lined election law. And the three re­quests failed mis­er­ably — the first mill levy ques­tion was voted down by 64 per­cent of those cast­ing bal­lots, the sec­ond mill levy by 69 per­cent and the bond by 57 per­cent.

Some of that has to be driven by com­mu­nity aware­ness of APS’ steadily de­clin­ing en­roll­ment, sig­nif­i­cant dropout prob­lem and poor test scores — at the same time lo­cal high-per­form­ing char­ter schools have long wait­ing lists as par­ents try to move their kids out of APS. APS has fewer stu­dents now than in the 1970s, and its stu­dent pop­u­la­tion has dwin­dled from more than 90,000 in 2010 to un­der 82,000 this year.

Crit­ics also pointed out APS al­ready spends more per stu­dent than many sim­i­lar dis­tricts. And APS has been busier grow­ing its spend­ing on adults in ad­min­is­tra­tion than on kids in class­rooms. From 2006 to 2017, ac­cord­ing to state data, APS ad­min­is­tra­tive spend­ing in­creased by 17.5 per­cent, while class­room spend­ing went up 7.4 per­cent.

Peggy Muller-Aragon, who is un­for­tu­nately too of­ten a mi­nor­ity of one on the APS Board of Ed­u­ca­tion, was much more in touch with pub­lic sen­ti­ment in her as­sess­ment of the election re­sults. She said APS wasn’t in check with re­al­ity and vot­ers want “bet­ter ac­count­abil­ity,” with stu­dents tak­ing pri­or­ity over unions — items not cur­rently on the APS menu.

All three mea­sures were soundly re­jected by what Reedy seems to think are stingy vot­ers — yet APS vot­ers con­sis­tently open their wal­lets for the district. In fact, the last time all mea­sures on an APS bal­lot were de­feated was in 2002. The big­gest pro­posed tax hike — a mill levy in­crease cost­ing $510 mil­lion in new taxes over six years — lost by more than a two-to-one mar­gin, with about 72,000 vot­ers turn­ing thumbs down com­pared with about 32,000 in sup­port.

How does that not send a mes­sage?

Speak­ing of send­ing mes­sages. Are our law­mak­ers and gover­nor in Santa Fe lis­ten­ing? While con­cern over APS per­for­mance and ac­count­abil­ity played a fac­tor in these re­sults, so, too, did New Mex­i­cans’ frus­tra­tion with ris­ing taxes. Many Jour­nal let­ter writ­ers voiced con­cern about APS’ tax in­crease at the same time city and county taxes have gone up and law­mak­ers are propos­ing myr­iad in­creases this leg­isla­tive ses­sion.

Sadly, the first mill levy ques­tion, which was not an in­crease but a con­tin­u­a­tion of a cur­rent tax and would have brought in $190 mil­lion over six years, would have paid for much-needed main­te­nance. It should have been ap­proved but failed mis­er­ably. And while some of that money could have been used for safety up­grades, APS cyn­i­cally tried to black­mail vot­ers by putting the rel­a­tively small amount ear­marked for safety, $20 mil­lion, in one of the new tax, high-dol­lar, bal­lot ques­tions.

So in­stead of the sim­ple mill levy ex­ten­sion, which would have gen­er­ated ad­di­tional new money ev­ery year as prop­erty val­ues rise by 3 per­cent an­nu­ally, the tone-deaf APS ad­min­is­tra­tion and its rub­ber­stamp board ma­jor­ity in­cluded the two shoot-forthe-moon pack­ages. Now, APS is in the un­en­vi­able po­si­tion of hav­ing to pri­or­i­tize projects and main­te­nance based on get­ting no dol­lars from the election.

“What we need to do now is re­assess all three ques­tions and do, frankly, what any good teacher would do when a les­son plan misses the mark,” Reedy said. “We re­view, we ad­just, adapt, re­vamp and re­write, if nec­es­sary.”

That new les­son plan should in­clude a fo­cus on what caused these pro­pos­als to fail. It starts with a com­mit­ment to fis­cal trans­parency and ac­count­abil­ity, and the ac­knowl­edge­ment that any tax in­crease must be mod­er­ate and thor­oughly ex­plained. It con­tin­ues with a prom­ise to de­liver stu­dent aca­demic achieve­ment. And it ends with the un­der­stand­ing that most peo­ple sup­port our pub­lic schools but need to see both that com­mit­ment and that prom­ise in ac­tion be­fore mak­ing it even harder on them­selves to pay their bills.

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