Parents, teachers and even some school board hopefuls were surprised and dismayed by this week’s news that a proposal to begin the process of closing three small elementary schools in the Santa Fe district will be considered at a public meeting Wednesday.
“A vote to close any school is premature,” said Emily Waltz, president of the parent-teacher committee at Acequia Madre Elementary, one of the three schools on the list. “The public has not been presented with any sort of plan for the students and staff that would be displaced nor for the schools that would be asked to take in extra incoming students and staff.”
A decision on closures — one of the most contentious issues the school board faces — will come just a day after voters in the district choose two board members in contested races, who will take their seats in January. A reshaped board could overturn the previous board’s vote.
The meeting is expected to draw school supporters hoping to prevent the proposed closures from going forward.
Waltz said Acequia Madre parents will be among them. Last month, 10 community members spoke at a board meeting, and a few dozen more showed up for support, as the board discussed possible closures. The east-side Acequia Madre, which has about 150 students, was the best represented.
“We hope the board sees that voting to destroy our neighborhood schools without any sort of proposal to support their communities is short sighted and wrong,” Waltz said.
The shutdown measure will be introduced by board members Maureen Cashmon, who is stepping down from her seat, and Lorraine Price, whose seat is not up for election Tuesday. It would direct Superintendent Veronica García to begin the procedures to shut down E.J. Martinez and Nava elementary schools, along with Acequia Madre.
Cashmon has cited the schools’ declining enrollment and aging facilities as the reason for closures.
Acequia Madre, built in 1954, was last renovated in 2005 at a cost of $200,000. Nearly half its students are transfers from other school zones. Nava, built in 1969, has never received a significant renovation. E.J. Martinez, built in 1959, underwent a $2.3 million renovation in 2005.
One facility not on Cashmon’s closure list is the district’s smallest school, Tesuque Elementary, which has about 100 students. It was built in 1938 but received a $5 million renovation in 2008. Cashmon said she is not considering it for closure because it hosts community and local government meetings and has stronger ties to its surrounding neighborhoods than other schools.
Carmen Gonzales, who is seeking to oust board member Steven Carrillo from his District 1 seat, which represents Acequia Madre, said the timing of Cashmon’s proposal “is odd, in that there will be at least one or two new members of the board.”
Carrillo made a stronger statement, saying of Cashmon, “This is utterly irresponsible and will damage her legacy after four good years on the board.”
Both candidates said they are against closing any schools.
In Cashmon’s District 2, candidate Sarah Boses, an oncology nurse with kids enrolled in El Dorado Community School, said she would prefer the board to slow down and study the issue rather than make a quick decision to close schools.
“I’m just really shocked that Maureen [Cashmon] is pushing this so hard to go through,” Boses said. “I know she says they’ve done reports, but I haven’t seen them.”
Boses’ opponent, John Triolo, who spent over 30 years as a teacher, principal and superintendent in public schools in California, said he would be open to closing a school if the budget called for it. He would not overturn a decision on the matter made by a previous board, he said.
“If enrollment is declining and there’s no way to make up the money in the budget, then I would have to support closing schools,” Triolo said.
Cashmon’s item on Wednesday’s agenda says the initial process for closing schools could include a districtwide moratorium on requests for students to transfer to schools outside their home zones, a district rezoning effort and a gradual phase-out of student populations at schools preparing for shutdowns.
The proposal also directs the superintendent to develop plans and recommendations for the future use of any closed school sites.
It won’t be the first time the board has considered closing the schools. The board discussed proposals to close E.J. Martinez and Nava in 2017 and 2018. The board hasn’t mentioned the possibility of closing Acequia Madre in nearly a decade, when a proposal was quashed after igniting community outrage.
Kirsten Beach, a teacher at Santa Fe High School and a parent of students at E.J. Martinez, said the talk about school closures is upsetting children.
“The situation gives anxiety to our kids,” she said. “They’re like, ‘Why do they want to close us?’
“It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy,” she added. “People call and say, ‘We’re thinking of moving to the neighborhood,’ and we’re like, ‘We don’t know if we will have a school,’ and then people move elsewhere and enrollment drops, and low enrollment becomes a reason to close the school.”
Board President Kate Noble, who opposes an immediate decision on closings schools, will introduce a resolution Wednesday that would instead direct the superintendent to study equity in the schools and report back in early 2020.
“My hope is my proposal will channel this energy into engagement,” Noble said. “We need to channel this energy into a full reimagining of our district.”
The possibility of a school shutdown is one of the top issues that get local parents engaged and draw members of the public to school board meetings.
“It can be tough to engage parents on the most important matters,” Triolo said. “If you change the dress code, people will show up. If you change the way you’re teaching math, you’re lucky to have anybody at the meeting. But which is more important?”
Noble defended parents who only show up when they fear their child’s school might close.
“It is human nature for busy families and parents to not show up unless it’s urgent,” she said. “It’s so important that we find other ways to listen to and have communication with parents outside meetings when we talk about school closures.”
Some parents at schools that aren’t in danger of closing say they are following the issue closely because it will affect resources available throughout the district.
“I have mixed feelings,” said Loretta O’Donnell, a parent at the south-side César Chávez Elementary.
“Part of me is sad because I know a school closing affects students, teachers and parents,” she said. “If my kid was at one of those schools, I’d be asking, ‘What else can we do?’ But also I know that if the funding is not there to operate a school that is half full, there’s not much else to do.”