Santa Fe school board member Maureen Cashmon cites the problems of declining enrollment and aging facilities. Board President Kate Noble wants to talk about “reimagining” the district’s schools. Only board member Steven Carrillo mentions “possible closures.”
Using different language, all three have placed the same issue on the agenda for discussion and possible action at Tuesday night’s school board meeting: The district is losing students — and, consequently, state funding — each year while operating most of its 29 campuses under capacity.
Some schools, meanwhile, are operating at more than 100 percent of what the district considers “functional capacity” or don’t have enough teachers to fill classrooms.
Some parents wish the board would call the problem “inequality.”
“I think it is completely inequitable,” said Denise Rappmund, the parent of a student at Kearny Elementary School in central Santa Fe. “My honest first impression of Santa Fe Public Schools when I started digging into the data is it is just as segregated by income and language as any other place.”
Rappmund said she began researching the district when she moved to Santa Fe in June 2018, ahead of her son’s first grade year.
Rappmund found a trend long known to Santa Fe educators, parents and community advocates: As the population of school-age kids in Santa Fe has continued to shift to the south, largely because of more affordable housing options, schools in the central and southern areas of the city have become filled with lower-income children and immigrants learning English.
The district has built new campuses in these areas to accommodate growing numbers of students, while smaller, older east-side and north-side elementary schools continue to operate in zones in the downtown area and surrounding wealthy neighborhoods that are home to far fewer children. These schools, which have had some of the district’s highest math and reading scores, are a draw for more affluent parents, many who transfer their children there from other zones.
‘We’re stretching ourselves thin’
Nearly a decade ago, there was talk of consolidating old east-side elementary schools, but the effort was quashed — largely the result of vocal parents who opposed the plan.
Since then, district officials have not discussed the possibility of closing tiny Acequia Madre Elementary in its historic namesake neighborhood just off Canyon Road. But other schools have shut down. Most recently, the district closed two midtown middle schools and combined their populations at the newly constructed Milagro Middle School.
Two years ago, school board members introduced a plan to close a midtown elementary school and an east-side school a couple of miles away — both aging facilities with declining or stagnant student populations. The plan ignited an uproar in the community and then quietly faded from the board’s discussions.
Board member Cashmon, who is not running for reelection in November, recently revived the issue of whether to close E.J. Martinez and Nava elementary schools. She also named nearby Chaparral Elementary as possible site for closure.
“We’re stretching ourselves so thin as a district, and as we find it’s harder and harder to hire staff and we spread those staff thinner and thinner, the board has to make a difficult decision,” Cashmon said in a phone interview last month. “This board has discussed this before, and the only new information is the facilities have gotten older and the number of elementary-aged kids in Santa Fe has declined.”
Opposition is already brewing. But some parents and educators also see an opportunity to reshape the district in a way that creates more equitable schools.
“My hope is that parents value the education of all children and not just consider their own child,” said Rappmund, the Kearny Elementary parent. “I think here and now Santa Fe has a chance to do something positive for all kids in the district. It doesn’t have to be a totally negative discussion about closing schools.”
What the district’s numbers say
According to data from the state Public Education Department, enrollment at Santa Fe Public Schools has decreased by more than 1,000 students in the past five years, dropping to 13,286 in 2018-19 from 14,473 in 2013-14. In the current school year, the district has so-called functional capacity for 17,065 students and an enrollment of just 13,087.
Functional capacity of a school depends on how it is configured. For instance, it could convert a computer lab or other space into a classroom to increase the number of students served.
Santa Fe schools Superintendent Veronica García wouldn’t say the district has too many facilities for the declining number of students it serves or provide an estimate of what she considers the district’s ideal functional capacity.
Instead, she said, “We are not using all our classrooms. We have space for more students.”
The empty classrooms are not evenly distributed.
Piñon Elementary, on the city’s south side, is the district’s most crowded traditional school, operating at 106 percent of its functional capacity. The east-side Atalaya Elementary, where 60 percent of students are transfers from other school zones, is the only other elementary that is over capacity, according to data from the district.
Two of Santa Fe Public Schools’ least-crowded schools — Aspen Community School, which is undergoing an $8.6 million renovation and has a student population that’s 64 percent of capacity, and Gonzales Community School, which underwent a $14 million renovation in 2010 and has an enrollment at 68 percent capacity — are a mile apart.
Salazar Elementary is at just 52 percent functional enrollment capacity and Chaparral Elementary is at 58 percent. At five elementary schools in Santa Fe, at least 43 percent of students have transferred in from another school zone.
Only one of them, Nava Elementary, was cited by Cashmon last month as a school that should be closed or repurposed because of its age and the high cost to renovate the building. According to district data, Nava hasn’t undergone a renovation since it was built in 1969.
The other four schools with high rates of out-of-zone transfers — Atalaya, Carlos Gilbert, Acequia Madre and Wood Gormley elementary schools — are within a two-mile radius on the city’s northeast side, near the downtown area.
Less than 10 percent of students at each of those schools are English-language learners, compared to 24 percent across the district. Less than a third of students qualify for free and reduced-price lunch, a federal measure of poverty, compared to three-quarters of the district’s overall population.
The district does not provide transportation for students transferring to a school outside their home zone.
“One of the things that out-of zone-transfers tell me is that’s a population that can afford both the time and expense to drive a kid to school,” Noble said. “… I’m determined not to jump to conclusion as to what that means. I think we know that the population of our kids has been moving south and west.”
‘They don’t want to make a difficult choice’
Noble, whose board seat is not up for election in November, is urging patience. In an opinion piece published last week in The New Mexican, she said, “We need to slow down and be extremely thoughtful and as innovative as possible in evolving public schools for our children.”
She said she will propose a task force to study some of the “key structural issues facing the district.”
Meanwhile, Carrillo, the only school board member who faces an opponent in the November election, said he has reconsidered his proposal to discuss school closures at Tuesday’s board meeting.
“There could be some action Tuesday evening. We’ve left it open to the possibility,” Carrillo said. “But I’m taking closure off the menu. I’m not trying to let that be part of the discussion.”
But Cashmon and local teachers union President Grace Mayer say now is the time to make a decision on school closures.
“Rather than wait for a financial crisis, it would be wise planning to act now,” Cashmon said. “Our buildings are aging, our enrollment is declining and we can’t hire enough teachers.”
Mayer, an art teacher at the new Milagro Middle School, said the imbalance of Santa Fe Public Schools’ staffing and enrollment is most glaring at the southwest-side Ortiz Middle School, which has struggled with teacher vacancies. It hired two teachers this month, the district said, cutting its number of openings for full-time teachers from seven to five.
“We should all be concerned as a community that there are so many vacancies at Ortiz. Those kids are not receiving an appropriate education,” Mayer said.
“I think the board has kicked the can down the road because they don’t want to make a difficult choice,” she added. “It’s going to be unsettling a year from now. It’s going to be even more unsettling two years from now.”