No one can accuse Santa Fe Mayor Alan Webber of auditioning for a chapter in Profiles in Courage.
He used his bully pulpit to take a late stand against closing any schools in Santa Fe. Webber made his position public a few hours before the school board considered a proposal to shutter three elementary schools.
“Let’s change the conversation from voting to close schools to working to build our city,” he said.
His message was popular enough. Thousands of people had a rooting interest in saving their neighborhood schools.
But by the time the mayor piped up, everyone knew the measure to close schools didn’t have the votes to pass. Only two of the five school board members favored closures to offset rising costs and dips in enrollment.
Every school lives on, but so does a hard truth. Santa Fe soon enough might have to close some schools or sag under the weight of a system built for a different time.
Few decisions are more painful than shutting down schools that mean so much to so many. Yet there is nothing sentimental about shifting demographics or crushing financial problems.
School board members might only have delayed the inevitable. As neighborhoods change and budget problems continue, they will have to reconsider whether Santa Fe has the right number of schools.
In his eleventh-hour statement, Webber said city government should have a voice in how to run the school district. His wording was dense in parts, haughty in others.
“The City and the School District need to work together on issues of inclusivity, equity, performance, and opportunity,” he wrote in one head-hurting sentence.
“We need to plan together when it comes to the connection between housing, jobs, transportation, and education. You can’t simply take a vote on closing a few schools without looking at the bigger picture and without talking with your closest partner,” Webber continued, making clear he thought he deserved an audience with the board before it took up school closures. “We may be two separate jurisdictions, but we have one common mission — the wellbeing of every part of our city.”
Webber suggested “constructive, productive, positive conversation” between the school board, himself and the City Council.
This more metropolitan approach to government could be promising. In these summits, the weighty matters of equity and inclusivity might be defined.
Other sticky wickets — crime and low test scores, for instance — would still have to be addressed by two different governments.
With the inevitable changes in personalities that will occur in the school district and at City Hall, it’s anybody’s guess how long informal summits would continue or if they would be productive.
Webber’s idea of more involvement from City Hall in school decisions isn’t new. And it doesn’t go nearly as far as what’s been done in Chicago and Cleveland.
Mayors of those cities obtained control over the public schools more than 20 years ago. They appoint the school board. This gives City Hall tight control over all local government operations.
Webber’s overture is timid by comparison but flawed nonetheless.
Nobody objects to city government and the school board communicating on public policy. But political systems are no better than the people managing them. A diligent, focused school board in Santa Fe would not need a mayor and City Council looking over its shoulder on school closures.
Webber’s top-heavy administration has a big enough challenge in healing its failings before attempting to influence school management.
The city’s biggest and best-funded agency is its bureaucratic police department. I twice have tried to file online police reports about vandalism. The police department’s computer tells me I’m out of bounds.
“The address you have entered does not appear to be in our jurisdiction,” it states.
Candidates for mayor and City Council seats knock on my door to ask for my vote. They assure me I’m a resident of the city, even if police computers dispute the fact.
Bumpy roads, addicts’ needles strewn in parks and a still-vacant college campus in the heart of town don’t give Webber and the rest of City Hall much time to focus on k-12 schools.
Webber isn’t always so interested in problems that fall outside his purview.
Senior residents of Villa Alegre, a public housing complex, asked him for help last summer, saying they felt harassed by the property manager and the Santa Fe Civic Housing Authority. Some feared trumped-up eviction proceedings.
Webber told them public housing is a federal program, and they should contact their congressman. His involvement ended there, though he often says the city has a housing crisis.
This time, the mayor wants a say about another government’s inner workings.
Pardon my skepticism. Webber’s desire to assist the school system would be more intriguing if city government were humming along, a model of thrift and efficiency.
Ringside Seat is an opinion column about people, politics and news. Contact Milan Simonich at firstname.lastname@example.org or 505-986-3080.