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Posted January 12, 2011

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January 2011: Join in, help APS take on challenges

This guest column appeared in the Albuquerque Journal.

You've likely heard by now that Albuquerque Public Schools are being asked to do more with less. We don't know exactly how much less, but we know based on state projections that budget cuts will be significant.

We must meet the challenge head-on for the sake of our children — and our future. We are determined not to allow budget cuts to keep us from our commitment of achieving academic excellence; creating high-quality, safe learning environments; and ensuring effective and efficient operations. Our challenge is to meet these goals with fewer resources and protect our mission, which is to guarantee a high-quality education for every student we serve in Albuquerque.

We are anticipating a $64 million shortfall for the 2011-2012 school year, but that's not a firm number. I asked the district's chief financial officer months ago to begin exploring the budget challenges so our school community isn't caught unprepared if the cuts are as deep as feared.

A $64 million cut amounts to about a 10.5 percent decrease in the APS operational budget. This is the expected result of both a decrease in state funding, as well as an increase in the cost of day-to-day operations such as utilities and employee benefits.

We're all in this fight together, so we're asking the APS community to help us come up with a strong plan of attack— one that will allow us to continue our mission even if it means doing so with less funding, with fewer resources and, yes, with an even smaller team. Our mission is to make the most of what we have and of what we'll be left with in the future.

APS is seeking budget advice from those in the trenches, so to speak. We have asked dozens of volunteers — teachers, students, parents, secretaries, custodians and business leaders from throughout the district who all have a stake in the education of our kids — to serve as "budget liaisons" who will share information about the budget and help us identify potential cost savings.

First, we'll train these budget liaisons in how we receive our funding and how we budget our money. Once they've gone through the training, the liaisons will be asked to share what they've learned with their communities, make similar presentations and gather suggestions based on public input.

Specifically, they'll ask for input on where to make cuts, what areas shouldn't be cut, how we might generate revenue and other ideas for making do with less.

Finally, we'll compile the suggestions and present them to the Board of Education and the public. Our goal is to make sure the public gets accurate budget information, while we empower the stakeholders in our community.

One goal of using this grass-roots effort is to clear up some misconceptions and confusion about public school funding and the APS budget. For example, we want to make sure parents, teachers and the community know that 84 percent of the APS operational budget goes directly to schools for expenses like teacher, educational assistant, principal, counselor, librarian and nurse salaries, as well as for building maintenance, utilities, graduation and testing. About 64 percent of the operating budget goes directly to classroom instruction, while less than 1 percent is used for central administration.

We will share with our liaisons the fact that 87 percent of the APS operating budget goes to pay for salaries and benefits of the district's almost 11,000 employees.

We'll show how we've already cut non-school departments by 15 percent in the past couple of years. And that schools were able to avoid layoffs last year by not filling hundreds of jobs left by employees who retired or moved.

We'll explain to the liaisons, who we hope will then let their co-workers and fellow parents know, that we can't use building and maintenance funds to pay teacher salaries, nor can we lay off double-dippers (retired workers who have returned to work) because it could be considered age discrimination.

We will also explain why a four-day work week results in relatively little savings, unless it includes a 20 percent salary cut for employees.

We'll also provide this information to the public through our website, where constituents can provide suggestions and feedback.

I've said before that I prefer to see the glass as half full, but I think you can be an optimist and still be a realist. We're in for some tough times. The one choice still within our control is how we reach the difficult decisions ahead. I'm hopeful you'll be part of the process with us.

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