The leaders of Santa Fe Public Schools may call a snow day Thursday and cancel classes so that parents, teachers and students can gather at the Roundhouse and voice their views on potential cuts to public education funding.
Calling a “snow day for action” might be an unusual move for a school district, particularly as the National Weather Service is forecasting sunny skies and temperatures in the high 60s for Thursday. But Superintendent Veronica García said it is within the district’s right to close campuses — even without any sign of flurries — so that school supporters can have a chance to urge Gov. Susana Martinez to protect public education dollars as she prepares to sign off on New Mexico’s budget for the fiscal year that begins in July.
District spokesman Jeff Gephart said school officials are not specifically requesting that teachers and parents speak on behalf of Santa Fe Public Schools. “We are not asking anybody to support the school district opinion,” he said in an email. “We ask that each individual express his or her opinion regardless if that matches our stance.”
During a news conference Tuesday, when García announced the proposed snow day, as well as the district’s options to address a possible $5.5 million in what she called “draconian” spending cuts, the superintendent said, “We are in a crisis.” A budget reduction might lead to staff layoffs or a school calendar that is 15 days shorter, she said. “Budget cuts don’t heal.”
García will make a decision on the snow day by noon Wednesday, she said. In the meantime, she is asking parents, teachers and students to weigh in on the proposal by calling 505-467-2024 or filling out a form on the district’s website, www.sfps.info. Officials are also considering an alternate plan to close the district for half a day Thursday or even schedule a rally at the Roundhouse after regular school hours.
The possible day of action speaks to the desperation that some public school and higher education officials are feeling as legislators and the governor struggle once again to balance a state budget in the face of declining oil and gas revenues. The House of Representatives is expected to deliver to the governor a $6.1 billion spending plan, including tax increases, before the legislative session ends Saturday. Lawmakers have warned that without the new taxes, public education could take a hit.
Michael Lonergan, a spokesman for Martinez, called the Santa Fe school district’s proposed snow day a “blatant political stunt” that is “despicable.” He said the Senate is working to “gut” public education funding while pushing for tax increases. Martinez won’t allow either to happen, he said.
So far this school year, Santa Fe Public Schools has shut down for only one day of foul weather. The district has several snow days built into its calendar that would still allow it to meet state requirements for 180 days of instructional time.
School board member Steven Carrillo said Thursday would be like any other snow day, except parents would get nearly a full day’s notice to plan for it rather than three or four hours’ notice. Those working in administrative offices would still be required to work. School employees who don’t work would get paid.
Carrillo first proposed the idea of canceling school for a day of activism during a board study session Monday evening. Incorrect reports that the district was planning to close Wednesday for a Roundhouse rally later began circulating on social media sites, raising concerns that schools would close without enough warning.
School board members Lorraine Price and Maureen Cashmon voiced concerns Monday that if the district called a snow day, parents would have to scramble to find day care for their kids and that some low-income children who do not get regular meals at home would go hungry that day.
Carrillo said the district is working to ensure that students have access to school meals even if classes are canceled, though he provided no details Tuesday about how the plan would be carried out.
Cashmon said she still has concerns, “especially if we take a full day off, that some kids will be home alone. Some kids won’t eat,” she said. “Parents with special-ed kids — what are they going to do? I understand the objective and fully support wanting to try to get some comprise and get a reasonable budget passed for education, but I’m not sure this is the right way to go.”
The snow day would come just before Santa Fe Public Schools’ weeklong spring break starting Monday, March 20.
For years, Carrillo has advocated for a day of action, in which schools would close and all of their employees, students and parents would flood the Capitol to make a point that education matters.
He said his vision for Thursday is that people line the stairs of the Capitol leading to the fourth-floor office of the governor to deliver “a message of hope” in the form of letters and postcards urging her to hold the line when it comes to education.
If the district does close down Thursday, and nobody shows up at the Roundhouse, he said, “Then we get what we deserve.”
Grace Mayer, president of the teachers union NEA-Santa Fe, said based on her conversations with teachers, many of them would support the snow day for activism.
“We don’t have any choice but to take serious action to inform the community” about the threat of education cuts, Mayer said Tuesday.
In the past few years, teachers have sometimes gathered at the Roundhouse on federal holidays such as Martin Luther King Jr. Day to advocate for public education.
But it’s unclear whether a planned, paid day off for teachers and students to rally at the Capitol would any raise ethics issues. Representatives from the Secretary of State’s Office, New Mexico Ethics Watch and Common Cause New Mexico did not respond by press deadline to calls seeking comment on this possibility.
Two Democratic legislators said they support the idea of a school district taking a day off just so students can see how the state Legislature works.
“As long as they make their 180 [classroom] days or whatever, I think it’s a great thing,” said Sen. Cisco McSorley, D-Albuquerque. He said it would be equivalent to a field trip to observe government in action. “We don’t teach civics anymore [in school], so I think it’s fine.”
Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, said many students spend a day at the Legislature as part of a mentorship program or a field trip, so the notion of students and staff descending on the Roundhouse is normal.
Neither senator had any idea of whether a concocted snow day would cause child care problems or extra expenses for parents. McSorley said the child care center he used for his son had allowances for accepting children at unexpected times.
Wirth, upon initially hearing the news of the potential rally, responded with a one-liner: “Well, we need the snow.”