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Santa Fe, N.M., Schools Worry Voters May Shoot Down Ed Tech Funding

With voter participation expanding thanks to mail-in ballots, Albuquerque citizens defeated a series of education bond proposals. Now educators fear the same may happen in the state capital.

(TNS) — The results of an Albuquerque Public Schools special election — in which voters casting ballots by mail overwhelmingly rejected three bond proposals for construction projects — have some local school officials concerned about a similar election underway in Santa Fe.

In a test of a new state law that aims to increase election turnout, voters in several school districts in New Mexico, including Santa Fe Public Schools, are casting ballots by mail for the first time.

The convenience of mail-in ballots is expected to drastically increase voter participation, requiring officials to appeal to a wider base beyond the teachers, parents and other public school advocates who in the past have made up the majority of those showing up at polling sites in Santa Fe to elect school board members or decide on property tax measures to pay for construction projects, facilities maintenance and technology upgrades.

Over the past decade, school-related elections in Santa Fe have never drawn more than 10 percent of eligible voters, who rarely have rejected school bonds or other tax proposals.

On Tuesday, the Santa Fe County Clerk’s Office began mailing out ballots asking voters decided on a five-year renewal of a property tax that brings in $11 million a year to fund classroom technology and support for both public and charter schools.

Those ballots went out as the results in Albuquerque came in: The Bernalillo County Clerk’s Office reported Tuesday that about 28.7 percent of eligible voters cast mail-in ballots, rejecting all three tax measures, each by at least 58 percent.

“The ballots have been counted, and the voters have made their wishes clear,” Albuquerque Superintendent Raquel Reedy said in a statement. “The majority voted against a bond/mill levy package that would have paid to improve student safety, rebuild and repair our schools and refresh our technology and equipment.”

“Yes, what happened in Albuquerque worries us,” Santa Fe school board President Steven Carrillo said Wednesday.

“But,” he added, “we have confidence that the people of Santa Fe trust us to be good stewards of our bond money. The money from our proposal is going straight to the classroom to help students.”

Carrillo tried in the fall to lead an effort opposing public school districts’ inclusion in New Mexico’s new Local Election Act, which combines small, nonpartisan elections — previously held at different times of the year — into one ballot in November of odd-numbered years.

Some school districts, which formerly held regular elections in February, faced a gap in funding for the year if they waited until November to put tax measures on the ballot. The new law allows special elections by mail but requires entities to pay for them.

Santa Fe Public Schools says the vote to renew its five-year Education Technology Note comes at a cost of about $180,000.

Ballots are due back to the County Clerk’s Office on March 5.

Santa Fe schools Superintendent Veronica García was optimistic Wednesday about the election’s outcome.

“We welcome an increase in voter participation,” García said. “We want to see more voters participating in school elections. We want to be accountable to the public.

“At Santa Fe Public Schools,” she added, “we never take our voters for granted.”

While they share the new dynamic of mail-in-voting, the Albuquerque and Santa Fe school elections are about different approaches to different issues.

Albuquerque Public Schools proposed two mill levy questions and a bond issue to potentially raise $900 million over six years, most of which would have gone toward construction. Two of the measures together would have raised property taxes by 4.7 percent. One mill levy would have renewed an existing tax.

García and other school officials emphasize that the Santa Fe district’s Education Technology Note won’t increase property taxes.

Property owners will, however, see a drop in their taxes if the measure fails. Residents with a home valued at about $300,000 would pay some $150 less per year.

If the measure passes, $9.6 million a year will be used by Santa Fe Public Schools to pay the salaries of digital learning coaches, who help teachers assimilate new technologies into their lesson plans. It also will cover technology infrastructure upgrades and take-home laptops given to every student in grades 7-12.

The other $1.4 million would pay for technology needs at charter schools within the district’s boundaries.

©2019 The Santa Fe New Mexican (Santa Fe, N.M.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.