Officials vow to avoid closing schools as district launches 'reimagining' effort

·4 min read

Sep. 23—Santa Fe Public Schools, pressured by a steep decline in student enrollment, aging facilities and expected changes in K-12 education spurred by a landmark lawsuit against the state, on Thursday announced the start of a new community process to plan for the district's future.

Or, in the words of school officials, "reimagining" the district.

The move comes more than two years after the Santa Fe school board approved a resolution promising to rethink how it will deliver education to a shrinking number of students without closing schools amid a failed proposal by some board members to consolidate three small midtown and east-side campuses.

The new initiative, led by former superintendent Veronica García, won't lead to any campus closures, officials said.

"It is an alternative to the proposal to close schools," school board President Kate Noble said.

Such proposals have met with fierce opposition. Most recently, former board member Maureen Cashmon introduced a measure in 2019 calling for the district to consolidate E.J. Martinez and Nava elementary schools and close the east-side Acequia Madre Elementary, which just last week was named a National Blue Ribbon School.

Cashmon's proposal came as the district had seen a steady decline in students.

In the following years, as the coronavirus pandemic took hold, the losses accelerated. The district lost nearly 1,400 students between 2013 and 2019, according to the Public Education Department's 40-day enrollment data, compared to a loss of more than 1,000 in just the last two years. Data for the current year has not been released.

The pushback resulting from Cashmon's measure led to the plan García presented Thursday night, which calls for a new steering committee and creates a framework for gathering community and expert input and drafting recommendations on how to reshape schools.

"I think the sky's the limit of what the product will be," García said.

The process, with a budget of $210,000, is expected to last 12 to 18 months.

"Rapid closure of schools could exacerbate the issue we are attempting to address: declining enrollment," said the plan presented by García, who is contracted to serve as the project's chief strategic officer.

The project aims to address issues such as equity; aging facilities; dropping enrollment and, therefore, fewer state funds; school zone boundaries; and "creative recruitment of students in Santa Fe County."

Rather than traditional neighborhood schools, especially in areas of the city with lower numbers of school-age children, the "reimagined program delivery" might include magnet schools, demonstration or training sites, International Baccalaureate programs, dual-language schools, computer science sites, or schools focused on visual and performing arts, business or distance learning, the presentation states.

The district now offers some of those types of programs at specialized high schools, which Superintendent Hilario "Larry" Chavez has called a "trademark" of Santa Fe Public Schools.

Thursday's presentation details the makeup of the new steering committee, with a diverse array of representatives, and outlines a goal of engaging a broad sector of the community in the process.

"We have a strong commitment to going to where people are at and being inclusive," García said in an interview after the meeting. "Whether it's our Indigenous communities or our Spanish-speaking communities, we want to ensure that we are communicating in a way that people can truly participate."

The presentation did not provide details on school enrollment drops or shifts in student populations or the potential costs of updating old buildings to keep them operating into the future.

The district plans to hire a project manager to oversee data collection, post meeting information and track the progress of the initiative, and facilitators who will be tasked with reaching out to the community.

The $210,000 projected cost includes $100,000 for the project manager's 18 months of work, $35,000 for the facilitators, $50,000 for "contract services" and $25,000 for "miscellaneous expenses."

The board set an Oct. 17 deadline for prospective steering committee members to submit their names to the superintendent. The committee will meet from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. every third Thursday of the month.

Board member Carmen Gonzales expressed concern about whether students would be able to take part in meetings if they were held during school hours.

"It seems to me, if we are reimagining the future of education, it'd be important to hear student voices," she said.

García and Chavez said they hoped to find a way to include student input.

"We have talked about that and trying to incorporate their voice in this, and some will continue to look at ways if they want to participate, possibly excusing them during the lunch hour," Chaves said. "We're still trying to figure out ways to incorporate that without disrupting educational time."