Residents take sides on consolidation

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By Don Pace

Former teacher Victor Cordova questioned why anyone would want to fix the two local school districts.

“If it’s not broken, why fix it?” Cordova asked.

“It is broken,” resident Olivia Lovato said.

Those were two of the views at Tuesday’s forum on whether to consolidate the two school districts. More than 150 residents packed Kennedy Hall to talk about a topic that has often been considered politically toxic.

Las Vegas is the only city in New Mexico with two school districts, and citizens had plenty to say on whether that should remain.

However, while there was enough disagreement to go around, the meeting was civil in tone, and at times, laughter spread across the hall.

The meeting grew out of a survey done last spring by Professor Margaret Young’s Highlands University class, which took a unscientific survey where a big majority of respondents favored at least considering consolidation.

After Young’s presentation on the survey, several audience members questioned its validity. One person said, “Why is this (survey) being presented as factual? This is useless and worthless.”

Graduate student Lindsey Hill said consolidation would mean a loss of jobs.

“In this economy why would anybody want to consider anything that would potentially do away with jobs?”

Hill said when a community loses jobs, it has a trickle-down effect that harms retail businesses.

“Why would we exacerbate this situation by purposely eliminating jobs from our community? So what if we are the only community in New Mexico with two school districts? With this, we have the ability to maintain more high-paying jobs than most communities our size, which is good for our economic vitality,” Hill said.

Hill maintained each district would lose more than $500,000 if the two administrations were combined. She said her figures showed about $800,000 was being spent on administration and wondered why some were willing to throw away $1 million to save $800,000.

Gia Berged argued for the other side.

“All the schools would stay the same. There would be one administration with fewer higher-ups. We’re not going to have two superintendents, two associate superintendents. We’re not going to have two of this and two of that. All that money could go to the kids.”

Carol Winkel, founder of the now-defunct Bridge Academy, agreed.

“If not consolidating the districts is to protect jobs, then let’s be honest with ourselves — if consolidation will put more money into the classroom rather than into the administration, then it is to the benefit of our students.”

Ben Flores, a resident, said there was a study done by a University of New Mexico professor in the 1980s. He said the study showed that consolidation would benefit students through savings in administrative costs. He offered to show the study to anybody interested in seeing it.

Morris Madrid, a city councilman, said he was speaking as a parent with kids in both districts.

“This is an issue that can be brought about only to create divisiveness, which this community does not need. What we do need is valid information to see if people really want to see if this issue is addressed or not,” Madrid said.

Emilio Aragon, a resident, wondered what would happen to the curriculum and to the culture if consolidation happened.

“There are a few of us here who have been through this before with the consolidation of the city. We’re all paying taxes, but all the resources are all on the east side, and it’s not fair. If we consolidate the schools, is the same thing going to happen again? Somebody should come up with some reassurance that resources will be equally disbursed,” Aragon said.

Asked if the Public Education Department could force consolidation, panelist Sam Vigil, a former state representative and former Luna president, said the governor and Legislature could address the issue. 

“When you take the total cost of education in the state of New Mexico, almost 70 cents on the dollar goes to education. I think it is almost inevitable that the Legislature will review and address this issue,” Vigil said. 

Co-panelist Barbara Perea-Casey, a former local schools administrator, said the law allows for school boards to make a request to consolidate. But if the school boards do not want to do that, then the Legislature has the authority to do it on its own, she said.

Casey said in 1941, New Mexico had more than 900 school districts. In the 1960s, legislation brought that number down to 141 and currently the state has 89.

As the meeting came to an end, moderator Sara Harris asked for a show of hands of those who thought a more scientific study should be conducted.

A majority of audience members raised their hands. A number of residents also signed up as part of a fact-finding committee to gather information so people will be able to make a more informed decision about administrative consolidation of the two school districts.