- Associated Press - Friday, April 14, 2017

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) - One of the nation’s largest school districts has decided to eliminate middle school sports to save money, in the latest response to a financial crisis gripping New Mexico.

Parents reacted with dismay to 3,400 students in Albuquerque Public Schools losing a traditional training ground for high school athletics. Basketball, volleyball and track and field teams in the district’s 28 middle schools are set to be disbanded next school year, leaving families to find private leagues for children in grades 6, 7 and 8.

Some worry that low-income families in particular may be hard-pressed to find teams and facilities outside public school, while others say the opportunity to play sports is critical for students at such a formative age.

Vanessa Petty, president of the parents association at Lyndon B. Johnson Middle School in Albuquerque, said her daughter was looking forward to playing volleyball next year.

“Their first introduction to sports for a majority of children is middle school,” Petty said. “It’s huge not just for their personal health but more for social aspects. They learn teamwork, they learn respect for others.”

Under the athletic cuts, teachers would lose coaching stipends and short-term coaching contracts would go away. The changes will save $580,000 and help avoid classroom cuts, district spokeswoman Monica Armenta said.

That is a small fraction of the $26 million in reductions that the district says may be needed as New Mexico wrestles with a downturn in tax income linked to oil prices, a sluggish economy and the highest U.S. unemployment rate. Public schools in New Mexico rely on the state for nearly all their operating budgets.

Republican Gov. Susana Martinez and the Democratic-led Legislature are in a standoff over how to fill a $156 million budget shortfall and protect the state’s credit rating. Martinez vetoed tax increases that she called reckless and plans to call lawmakers back to the Capitol to renegotiate.

Lawmakers are preparing to sue the governor to block vetoes that would defund all state universities, the Legislature and other core government services.

Albuquerque Public Schools has translated the state budget gap into a possible 2 percent reduction in its funds. The state already cut spending on public schools in October by more than 2 percent, and more recently swept funding from school district reserves to plug this year’s deficit.

More wrenching decisions are looming as union leaders and school officials negotiate labor contracts that may involve unpaid furloughs, larger class sizes, loss of school supplies and more course assignments per teacher.

“We don’t have a choice unless the state comes into some enormous windfall and leprechauns jump out of trees and leave pots of gold,” Armenta told a morning radio show Friday.

“How many teachers we can hire, what course we have to cut, what sort of beloved programs can stay: We don’t know,” she said.

The governor’s office said dropping athletics showed “distorted” priorities.

“This is a bad decision,” Michael Lonergan, a spokesman for Martinez, said in an email. “Cut the political games and restore middle school athletics.”

He criticized the district’s reluctance to tap cash balances that state education officials estimated at $82 million.

Armenta disputed that figure, saying the district has $46 million in cash reserved mostly for grant-funded jobs where reimbursements are delayed. Using those funds would risk a credit downgrade and higher borrowing costs, she said.

The district has come under political fire in recent years for costly administrative dismissals and settlements.

Petty and others are questioning whether the district has other options rather than cutting middle school sports. She pointed to a recent announcement that $12 million would be spent to improve an athletics complex at one Albuquerque high school.

“We can’t spend half a million to fund middle-school sports?” she asked. “I think there could be other ways.”

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