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Albuquerque School Board Candidates Discuss Racism And Equity

New Mexico has failed to provide schooling that’s culturally appropriate and sufficient for many students of color – that’s according to a landmark education ruling last year. Now, school board elections are approaching for the state’s largest district. Anti-racist community organizers invited Albuquerque Public Schools board candidates to a public forum last week and questioned them on their understanding of systemic racism in schools and what they hope to do about it.

The event at a community center in the South Valley was set up like the opposite of a school board meeting: instead of officials presiding from an elevated table up front, the candidates were sat in a circle in the middle of the room, with students and parents surrounding on all sides.  

Kiran Katira is director of the University of New Mexico's Community Engagement Center. She opened with a brief history of Families United for Education (FUE), which held its first school board, candidate forum in 2009. “This is people power at its best, when families and communities influence change," she said. 

Then, longtime education advocate Emma Jones told the candidates about her experience with racism at Albuquerque High School when she was a homeless student there years ago.

"I wasn’t sure if I was gonna stay in school. It was already really hard. I had lots of absences," said Jones. "And I was advised by my academic advisor just to like, not try. He said 'the students that are like you are often not gonna go to college, so it might be better to just focus on getting your G.E.D. or something else instead of finishing high school.'"

Jones says her son, who's in school now, has also faced this kind of racism. "These kinds of experiences make us feel like we’re not welcome," she said, "and they make us feel like we shouldn’t be there."

Credit Hannah Colton / KUNM
Emma Jones, lead organizer with the Learning Alliance NM, speaks to APS board candidates on Oct. 4, 2019.

In response to Jones’ story, the candidates were asked, if elected, what they would do to make sure that students’ cultures and histories are reflected throughout their education at APS. 

Laurie Harris is a recently retired educator vying for the seat in District 2, which includes Volcano Vista and Cibola High Schools. "Being a math teacher, a technology teacher, I’ve kinda been out of the loop of that," said Harris. "I’ve seen a lot of programs go on... but finding them and affording them have been the problem."

Peggy Muller-Aragón, who was elected to the District 2 seat since 2015, said it’s important to listen to kids and parents about what they need. "The other thing we must do is figure out how we can get the perception about children of color to be a positive," said Muller-Aragón. "Our culture, as a Hispanic woman, is so rich… we just need all of the adults to look and believe in that."

Less than an hour in, Muller-Aragon left the forum abruptly after some pointed questions from a parent.

The third person who filed for candidacy in APS District 2 was Sergio Trujillo. A spokesman for the Bernalillo County Clerk says Trujillo was disqualified as a candidate because he was not registered to vote in that district. 

Yolanda Montoya-Cordova, who's from the South Valley, was appointed to the District 1 seat in 2017. She said interaction with families is key to ensuring that students’ histories and cultures are at the center of their education.

"I love our community schools when the adults, the grandparents, that generational learning is invited into that school campus," said Montoya-Cordova, "and you have this opportunity to have everybody in this community embrace that culture, that history that’s unique to that community where those children are growing up."

Montoya-Cordova’s challenger, Madelyn Jones, was absent from the event. 

Barb Petersen currently represents District 4, which includes Highland High School and its feeder schools. She said APS should bring back home visiting for young students and give teachers more time to plan and reflect when implementing ethnic studies. 

"There are in APS some master, master ethnic studies teachers," said Petersen. "What we need is to make sure we facilitate their ability to collaborate, to spread… but also that internal look at ‘how are we teaching?'"

Also running in Southeast Albuquerque is Verland Coker. He said that representation, like in ethnic studies curriculum, is a start. But he said much bigger changes are needed in a system that wasn’t designed to value the unique things that Native American students or other students of color bring to the classroom.

“That's one of the core issues that we have for making education as inclusive as possible," said Coker, who said he dropped out of APS due to many of these systemic issues. "It’s something that has to be done from a policy perspective, in terms of looking at the standards and how they themselves can be racist or how they themselves can be exclusionary."

The third candidate for District 4, Laura Carlson, did not attend.

Each of the candidates had indicated their intention to participate in Thursday's forum when invited by FUE organizers back in August.

Election day is November 5. The Bernalillo County Clerk’s office will kick it off by mailing out absentee ballots this week.

Throughout the forum, other community members shared stories and asked equity-related questions. "We make young people feel really bad about dropping out, when the counter-story that’s important for us to tell is that the majority of young men of color are not making it," said Christoper Ramirez, an organizer with Together For Brothers. "So what are we going do about graduation rates, particularly for young men of color?"

Hear Ramirez' question and the candidates' responses -- Laurie Harris, Verland Coker, Barbara Petersen, then Yolanda Montoya-Cordova.

Students shared concerns about lack of support for non-English-speaking and immigrant students, disparities in school facilities between high- and low-income neighborhoods, and overbearing police presence at high schools populated mostly by students of color. 

Facilitators also asked the candidates to answer "yes" or "no" to a series of budget and policy questions:

  • If elected, will you support allocating sufficient funding in the APS budget for community- and student-led organizations such as VIA, Enlace, MEChA, GSA, Black Student Union, Native American clubs and Asian Pacific Islander clubs, as well as free bus passes for all students?
  • If elected, will you support allocating sufficient funding in the APS budget for ethnic studies and anti-racism trainings for all administrators and teachers?
  • If elected, will you attend an anti-racism training and encourage other policymakers and educational stakeholders to do likewise?
  • If elected, will you support adding anti-racism bills and bills granting 16- and 17-year-olds the right to vote in school board elections to the APS legislative agenda?

All five candidates answered "yes" to all questions except the last. Muller-Aragon and Harris each indicated they would not support lowering the voting age for school board elections.

Albuquerque Public Schools held a separate forum and asked the seven candidates to fill out a questionnaire. Read their responses here.


Support for KUNM’s Public Health New Mexico project comes from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the McCune Charitable Foundation, and from KUNM listeners like you.

Hannah served as news director at KUNM and reported on education, Albuquerque politics, and anything public health-related. She died in November 2020.
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