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Posted April 9, 2013

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April 2013: APS Can’t Bandage its Budget

Read the superintendent’s column that appeared in the Albuquerque Journal today, April 9.

APS employees, like so many in our community, have been forced to make shrinking paychecks go farther over the past half a decade. At first, that may have meant a lifestyle shift – fewer dinners out, maybe, or lower thermostats. But as take-home pay continues to dwindle while the cost of almost everything else goes up, it’s becoming more and more challenging to balance the checkbook, and tougher financial choices have to be made.

Albuquerque Public Schools is in a similar predicament. For five years now, we’ve seen a jump in utility, insurance and other costs, just as funding from the state declined. We’ve trimmed and chopped and shaved our operational budget to the tune of more than $105 million and nearly 1,000 jobs since the 2009-10 school year.

Now we’re looking at another round of cuts of between $7 million and $14 million for 2013-14. We can’t get any more blood from this turnip. It’s time to rethink how we do business.

I’ve recommended to the APS Board of Education that we move from a triage approach to budgeting to a long-term, sustainable plan more in line with our new economic realities. Here’s what those realities look like:

♦ We have fewer students in APS than we did a couple of years ago. Our enrollment has dropped by about 1,000 due in part to the growth of charter schools but also because of the struggling local economy.

♦ We’ve built a dozen new schools over the past decade, yet some of our schools are bursting at the seams while others are woefully under-enrolled.

♦ While the state Legislature increased funding for public education this year, much of that money is earmarked for special programs and projects and won’t go directly to the classroom.

♦ School districts across the state, like ours, haven’t received a cost-of-living increase in years despite bigger bills for utilities, insurance, teachers moving from one pay level to the next and more.

♦ Urban school districts across the country, like ours, are facing similar dilemmas and are considering extreme measures, including closing schools.

As I told the board, we can’t keep bandaging our budget. We’re out of Band-Aids. We either apply the tourniquet and lose the limb, or we undergo major reconstructive surgery.

I’m ready for reconstruction, though admittedly it can be a scary endeavor. Change is difficult, and not everyone will be happy with the results.

As I just alluded to, one of the most controversial changes that we’ll be talking about is closing some of our schools. We’ll approach this topic strategically, making sure families, staff and the community all have input before any decision is made.

We’ll also look at ways we can bring back some of our students, perhaps by offering more choices. For example, we’re planning to transform eCADEMY into a virtual high school where students can take all of their classes online. We’re also looking into opening a new magnet school offering specialized, career-oriented classes.

We need to become more energy efficient as well, finding ways to bring down escalating utility costs, whether that means better utilizing state-of-the-art heating and cooling systems or xeriscaping our grounds to save water.

And because 90 percent of our budget goes to salaries and benefits, we need to re-evaluate jobs throughout the district and possibly reorganize.

We’re hoping to put together a committee this summer to begin the strategic planning process. We’ll need everyone at the table: the business community, parents, teachers, principals, students. These tough decisions aren’t just ours to make, they’re the community’s. We need to come together to figure out how to best serve our students.

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