January 11, 2017

Lawmakers look at slicing APS into smaller districts

Albuquerque Public Schools

Near the end of his announcement for mayor last weekend, Albuquerque City Councilor Dan Lewis took a shot at the city’s public school district, saying it needed “radical repair.”

“I believe now is the time to deconstruct this large unaccountable school district and replace it with smaller, more accountable school districts,” Lewis said at the business incubator ABQ Fat Pipe, which is located in the old Albuquerque High School building. “As your mayor, what I’ll do is lead the charge to fundamentally change education in our city.”

With more than 95,000 students in the school system, APS ranks as the 31st largest public school district in the nation—outsizing the public school systems in bigger cities like Detroit, San Francisco and Boston.

Lewis is making the idea of breaking up the school district a part of his mayoral platform. To do so requires action from the state legislature.

State Rep. David Adkins, R-Albuquerque, could be the lawmaker that takes on the issue this legislative session, which starts next week. Adkins, who hasn’t yet filed legislation on the matter, wrote in an email to NM Political Report that he was “still working through some details on this and talking with APS about some other ideas.”

Because of the uncertainty surrounding the proposal, APS spokeswoman Johanna King would not comment extensively on the coming proposal.

“We’re hearing all kinds of rumors and gossip right now, but we can’t comment until we know what’s going to happen,” she said.

The idea has been tried before.

In 2002, then-state Sen. Manny Aragon and then-House Majority Whip James Taylor, both Democrats of Albuquerque, carried a bill that would have capped student bodies at public school districts in New Mexico at 35,000 students. The bill would have only applied to APS and would have required Albuquerque voters to approve the final idea in an election.

The Legislature passed the bill, but then-Gov. Gary Johnson vetoed it after making a compromise agreement with the APS Board of Education to hire private companies to manage struggling schools within the district.

Lewis, a Republican, signalled his support for a repeat of the 2002 proposal in an interview last weekend shortly after his mayoral campaign announcement.

“When you make school districts smaller, they’re more accountable, they’re more local,” Lewis told NM Political Report. “They’re more personable to the people making decisions.”

Albuquerque Teachers Federation President Ellen Bernstein criticized previous proposals to break up APS as being done along “racial and economic lines.”

“There is no research I’ve ever seen that says the size of a district matters in terms of student improvement,” Bernstein said.

Instead, Bernstein said lawmakers should focus on reducing the size of classrooms.

In 2005, public policy nonprofit New Mexico First held three town halls around the city with 125 people to gain their thoughts on breaking up the school district. According to the organization’s report, the town hall audiences recommended that APS stay as it is and instead improve “its core relationships with government, business, families and community, using research-based practices.”

The town hall participants also ranked the district’s large size as a strength that “allows for diverse programs and a variety of charter schools.”

Bernstein cited one advantage to APS’ size in its ability to build and repair old buildings across the district. She questioned whether smaller districts could afford to do that.

Lewis dismissed concerns that breaking up the school system would create districts that were exclusively poor or affluent. Instead he argued that breaking up the APS’ bureaucracy would do the work itself.

“You get the decisions in their school closer to the parents,” Lewis said. “And you have other state legislators and other people fighting to make sure that those schools have the resources that they need to be able to be successful.”

Legislators have until Feb. 16 to file bills during the 2017 session.