Rep. Garratt: School Boards as a Bridge

By Jennie Lusk

In Albuquerque, a school board member can accomplish many –many– terribly important things, but not all that some current candidates for the board raise and address.

  • Albuquerque Public Schools (APS) board members cannot decide whether or not to divide APS into several districts; that decision will be made by legislators.  
  • APS board members cannot decide whether teachers should present “critical race theory” (often a proxy for views on racial justice) as part of the curriculum; under state law, schools and school districts select from among instructional materials scored and adopted by highly qualified teachers engaged by the Public Education Department (PED) in six-year cycles.  
  • APS board members cannot decide school personnel issues; actually, it’s illegal for the board to interfere with hiring and firing decisions made by the superintendent.

According to Rep. Joy Garratt, a retired language arts teacher, instructional coach and test coordinator, the most important role for an APS board member is to serve as a bridge. Rep.Garratt represents House District 29, which covers most of the West Side north of Central and west to the Rio Puerco. The Representative is vice-chair of the legislature’s education committee and sponsor of dozens of education-related bills. She holds a master’s in educational leadership and post-BA teacher licensure, and has observed the performance of APS board members and the several APS superintendents they hired, from her first classroom assignment in 2008 until her retirement. 

While voters may be interested in knowing whether a board member promotes “school choice” such as using publicly funded vouchers for private and religious schools or whether a candidate whose children attend charter schools not governed by the APS board, an APS board member does not have direct input on such issues, she emphasized.  A board member’s job is to select the superintendent, who is the direct administrator.  The board approves a budget and union contracts developed by the superintendent and staff.

“But really,” she explained, “the APS board is the grass-roots political foundation for our families.

“The board is a connector between communities and schools–a bridge,” she continued.  Members can have a profound impact if they listen, give their input, and initiate contact, ensuring that communications flow both ways between families and the schools and administrators who serve them.  Board members, for instance, can distribute a regular newsletter to the school community, host forums with question-and-answer sessions, establish an accessible a website, and reach out through school principals to speak directly to families, she said.   However, some board members do not make communications with families a priority at all. 

“The role of listening and advising should also lead a board member to become a cheerleader for the district,” the Representative said. “Does the district have problems?  Of course.  But a board member needs a commitment to improving things, not tearing them apart.”

This year’s APS board races pose a serious challenge for Democrats who want to avoid voting for Republicans and who believe in following curriculum laws, school personnel rules, and who want to support candidates who have some experience with district schools governed by the board.  Party affiliation is not listed on the ballot for APS candidates, and two Democrats are pitted against each other in every district, potentially splitting the Democratic vote. There are no run-offs. It is winner take all. The turnout for the GOP candidates may strong, since one gubernatorial candidate expressly endorsed APS candidates on her website. It will take thoughtful review of Democratic candidate platforms and positions, candidate experience and understanding of Board duties to elect a board that supports academic excellence and honors its responsibilities and limits. Further, it will take robust turnout to overcome Republican focus on board races.

The Representative encourages voters to scrutinize candidate websites to see whether APS candidates ‘positions are in keeping with the Democratic platform—notably, whether a candidate takes a formal position supporting labor, as does the party platform. A complete list of APS candidates and their responses to a questionnaire can be found forAPS districts 3, 5, 6, and 7 at https://www.aps.edu/about-us/board/school-board-member-elections/candidate-questionnaires

Ensuring that the school environment is healthy, maintaining a good working relationship with the administration, ensuring that the budget is well-audited, that the school community is apprised of board policy-making and leadership decisions are all significant roles for an APS board member.  The various political views of candidates on topics over which they have no control may be of interest, but candidates’ directly expressed priorities on issues relevant to their tenure on the board will provide a solid foundation for voters.