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What's At Stake In Albuquerque's School Board Election

Masihullah Naseri, who's learning English, waits to cross the street on his way to summer school in Albuquerque's International District.

Voters in Albuquerque will choose three new school board members on Tuesday, Nov. 5. Those officials will shape the district’s budget and policies, and they’ll hire a new superintendent—all at a time when a landmark education ruling points to huge disparities in the quality of public schooling kids get across the state. KUNM’s Marisa Demarco spoke with education reporter Hannah Colton about what’s at stake with the school board race.

MARISA DEMARCO: The Yazzie-Martinez ruling identified several student populations that the state’s public education system has failed: Native American students, students learning English, students with disabilities, and those from families with low incomes. Those students live all across Albuquerque, of course—which parts of town are choosing their school board representative this week?

HANNAH COLTON: District 1 is in the South Valley, that would be Rio Grande High School and Atrisco Heritage Academy and the feeder schools for those. That’s an area that has more Hispanic families, and it’s a historically under-resourced part of the school district.

We also have District 2, up on the Northwest side. That’s Volcano Vista and Cibola High Schools. Listeners may remember there was an incident on Halloween last year. Students say a teacher at Cibola High School used a racist slur and cut a Native American student's hair. And many community members have been unsatisfied with APS’s response after that.

The third district that has a seat up is District 4, on the Southeast side. That’s Nob Hill, UNM and part of the International District. That’s a very diverse part of town in terms of race and income levels, with Highland being a high school that has a lot of immigrant and non-English-speaking students.

DEMARCO: There’s no pay for someone on the school board, so it’s often just retirees and folks who can afford to commit time to this extra work who run for those seats. But this year, there is one younger person running. What’s going on in District 4?

COLTON: Right, so the incumbent in District 4 is a retired educator. Her name’s Barb Petersen. She’s 67. She’s had strong union support. Petersen readily acknowledges ways the school system has failed children of color and other students, and she’ll argue for things like home visiting and giving teachers more professional development.

Her challenger is Verland Coker. He’s 26. He’s a high school dropout who’s been very self-educated. Coker is Native American, and he’s very critical not just of things like APS curriculum but also of the statewide standards themselves. Coker, I’d say, is the only candidate who’s bringing an argument that the system needs more radical, more fundamental change.

DEMARCO: What did the South Valley candidates have to say about working on the educational disparities surfaced by the Yazzie-Martinez lawsuit?

COLTON: In the South Valley, the incumbent is Yolanda Montoya-Cordova. She’s from there. She spoke to KUNM about getting more mental health professionals and trauma-informed staff in schools to address the school-to-prison pipeline. She also praised APS’s bilingual seal program and said the Indian Education Act should be fully funded.

Now, Cordova’s challenger is Madelyn Jones. She's a 79-year-old retail shop owner, and she has run for school board before. Jones was the one candidate who claimed a color-blindness in response to our questions about how to better serve children of color. Jones seemed to reject the whole premise of the judge’s findings in the Martinez and Yazzie lawsuit, and she was saying: Just treat children all the same.

DEMARCO: And what about the candidates in District 2, up on the Northwest side?

COLTON: Peggy Muller-Aragón is the incumbent there. She’s a retired APS elementary school teacher. She has talked about wanting to celebrate children of color and their cultures in schools. She did not respond when we asked her to come on the radio to talk more about these equity issues.  

Her challenger is Laurie Harris, who is retired from multiple decades teaching at APS. Harris admitted she wasn’t familiar with the New Mexico Indian Education Act, which is a main focus of the [Yazzie-Martinez] ruling. She said her main source of information on how racism affects students of color in New Mexico was a lawsuit from back in the '90s. And Harris said she supports restorative justice practices to keep kids of color from being too harshly disciplined. 


Watch the entire hour-long conversation with APS board candidates about equity and read more of their answers here.


Support for KUNM’s Public Health New Mexico project comes from the W.K. Kellogg 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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