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Pleas to keep school open but no solutions

The Independent of Edgewood, New Mexico

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An emotional Edgewood meeting Saturday drew a large crowd which offered strategies for trying to keep Edgewood Elementary School open, but no suggestions as to where the Moriarty Edgewood School District might fill a projected budget shortfall of $1.4 million for the next school year.

The school board voted in December to close two schools: Edgewood Elementary and Mountainview Elementary. Those in attendance were focused primarily on Edgewood.

The special meeting of the town council was attended by Rep. Jim Smith, an educator who retired last week, representing Dist. 22, and the newly appointed Rep. Vickie Perea, representing Dist. 50. School board members Audrey Jaramillo and Charles Armijo, appointed last month, were also in attendance, although not representing the school board.

Opponents of closure of Edgewood Elementary are pinning their hopes on the state's Public Education Department, which must sign off on the school board's decision.

In addition to two school closures, the school board voted last month to move sixth grade into the middle schools. The measures combined are expected to save the district about half of what it needs. The school district has been receiving supplemental and emergency funding, and using its cash reserves, for several years as enrollment numbers have dropped; the district has lost 42 percent of its student population in the past 10 years.

Part of the reason for that is the aging population in the area. The district's demographic analysis says the average age in the school district is 43.4, compared to 36.7 in the state, according to a 2010 study.

In selecting -Edgewood Elementary and Mountainview for closure, district superintendent Tom Sullivan said last month there was no single reason, but age and design of buildings and their location were part of the decision.

Edgewood Elementary has the oldest campus, built in 1981. Sullivan said the ease of converting the building for other positive purposes was also a factor.

The past ten years the school district has seen staff reduction of 200, including 162 certified teachers. Administration has seen a 49 percent reduction, Sullivan said.

The superintendent also said last month that at this point he is hopeful that additional revenue from the state Legislature— which convenes next week for a 30-day session—will mean that no cuts to programs will be needed now.

Still, those who spoke at the Edgewood meeting strongly oppose the school district's solution to its budget gap as harmful to the town.

"It's clear we're the largest municipality in the region by population," Edgewood Mayor Brad Hill said. "We have a large retail presence in this region. ... A large amount of our taxes are being extracted from our community." He said tax dollars leaving Santa Fe County are "a concern," calling those dollars "an attractive piece and people want a piece of it."

Comments from the public centered on how to keep Edgewood Elementary School open.

Edgewood Chamber of Commerce vice president Robin Markley, who owns Beehive Homes, an assisted living facility near Walmart, said it would be hard for her to continue to build in the community if the school were to close. We really need to let our voices be heard," she said, adding, "We're not just talking about a school, we're talking about the community of Edgewood."

Chris Hopper, president of the Edgewood Chamber of Commerce, said, "We have voted an affirmation to support keeping the school open." He added that after a recent meeting with state secretary of education Jon Barela, that "one of the main nails in the coffin [of economic development] is shutting down the only elementary school in the town limits of Edgewood."

Ira Kusnetz said he opposes any school closure and suggested the formation of a citizen committee and a town task force to prevent it. He called the school closures "ridiculous," adding, "I can't find a single positive point."

Kusnetz continued, "I can't think or even dream in a thousand years that our governor, who is so focused on education, and [secretary of education designate] Hanna Skandera would approve such an ill-thought-out plan."

Formation of an independent Edgewood school district came up several times during the meeting. An analysis of this idea several years ago when closure of Edgewood Elementary was previously broached suggested it would cost about $20 million to form a new school district in Edgewood.

A former town councilor, Glenn Felton, had several suggestions, starting with, "Cease the vitriolic rhetoric," adding, "The way some of these arguments have been phrased is 'us versus them.' It has the poten-tion to threaten our economic development by creating a mean-spirited place where people don't want to live."

Janelle Turner, a former planning and zoning commissioner for Edgewood, said when her son attended Edgewood Elementary School, "there were 800 students enrolled and the place was bursting at the seams." The current population of the school is around 250.

Tabrey Morehead wondered "how to let people know the school board decision is not final," adding that she thinks the board's decision was made in secret. "We need to do our best to figure out a better plan than what the school board has proposed."

Morgan Grain said she and her husband are a "young family" and opposed closure of Edgewood Elementary even though her child attends a nearby charter school. "Most houses in the Edgewood [Elementary] district you have to make a lot of money to live there," she said.

Judy Aucker, who lives out of the Edgewood Elementary district, but has three children currently attending there, said closing a different elementary school could save and additional $16,000. "The school board is not willing to look at closing Moriarty Middle School because it's in the middle of their town—how does this make sense? Do what's right.... If we have to close a school look at all of the options and do it right."

Jana Dunow, another parent, urged those in attendance to get their children involved. "My son wrote a letter to the governor—he did get a letter back," she said. "Have your kids sit down, make them a part of this process."

School board member Audrey Jaramillo, who started her comments by saying, "I hesitated in coming up here, because obviously I don't speak for the [school] board, and I don't want anything thrown at me," said she will continue to fight closure of Edgewood Elementary. She said part of the issue at the district is unfunded mandates from the state including teacher raises.

Jaramillo said she is president-elect of the N.M. School Boards Association and working at the state and national level for increased education funding.

Polly Plant said she is a teacher at Edgewood Elementary; her children have already graduated. "What teachers do is pretty phenomenal," Plant said, "especially at this school.... You don't always have high-caliber teachers that work together the way we do here."

Hill said he has not received an answer to the question of why Edgewood Elementary was selected for closure and suggested it comes down to politics. "I think what we've got is a political decision rather than a decision... based on what's best for the education of young people in our community," adding, "... when you make a decision based on political reasons rather than good public policy reasons then I don't know how you keep the vitriol out."

Smith said he would also work to avoid closure of Edgewood Elementary.

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Original Publication Date: January 15, 2014

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