Just one of the city's 12 high schools made "adequate yearly progress" last year under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, and it wasn't Cibola. Of Albuquerque's 128 public schools, only 47 met the standard, according to the state Public Education Department.
The overflowing classrooms and sagging test scores have convinced Mayor Martin Chavez that the city's schools are failing. So he wants to follow the example of mayors in Boston, Chicago, New York and several other cities: Take over the schools himself.
If Chavez can get the New Mexico Legislature to agree to his plan — he hasn't so far — Albuquerque would become part of a movement that began 15 years ago, when Boston switched control of its school system from an elected board to one appointed by the mayor.
The push for mayoral control reflects rising frustration and desperation over poor student achievement, crumbling buildings, bureaucratic wrangling among school officials and revolving-door superintendents.
Schools in Boston, Chicago and New York have improved test scores, avoided teacher strikes and had longer-lasting superintendents since mayors took over.
The districts have standardized their curriculums, ended "social promotion" of kids who fall too far behind, opened new schools to give students more choice and brought in millions of dollars in corporate donations.
But education specialists continue to debate whether kids really get a better education under such arrangements, whether any academic gains will be permanent, and how much credit mayors should get for the successes.
Kenneth Wong, a Brown University education professor, examined test scores of the 100 largest school districts from 1999 to 2003. He found that students in mayor-controlled school systems often perform better than those in other urban systems. Test scores in mayor-run districts are rising "significantly," he says.
However, Wong says in his study that "there is still a long way to go before (mayor-controlled) districts achieve acceptable levels of achievement."
On the other hand, Frederick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank, says his review of previous studies finds that it's "inconclusive" whether mayors can raise test scores more than elected school boards.
Solid data on student achievement have not been collected long enough, Hess says. And test scores also are up in Houston and other cities with elected school boards, he points out.
Eliminating an elected board — which in New York also included eliminating smaller neighborhood school boards — removes direct public involvement in school decisions. That can leave many parents feeling shut out, says Michael Kirst, a Stanford University education professor.
A controversial move can set off a wave of parental fury at the mayor.
In January, New York schools reorganized bus routes, doubling commute times for some children and leaving others stranded. Parents were outraged. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg last month named a parent as the city education department's first "family engagement officer."
Chicago, Boston and New York schools are still under the watch of the mayors — Richard Daley, Thomas Menino and Bloomberg — who first took them over. But what happens when the next mayor comes into office? Will the commitment to improving schools continue?
"Most mayors who are going to take over the schools are ready for it or want it," Hess says. "But there's no guarantee that the next mayor in eight years is going to feel the same."
In Albuquerque, Chavez sees the potential benefits of controlling the school system as outweighing any drawbacks.
"I don't want to run the schools, I assure you," he says of the 87,000-student system. "But I do want to have accountability. And this is the best way to do it."
More districts taking action
About a dozen of the 75 largest school districts now are under mayoral control. Boston's mayor was given control of the schools by the Legislature in 1992, Chicago's in 1995, and New York's in 2002.
More appear ready to follow:
•In Washington, Mayor Adrian Fenty is poised to gain control of the troubled school system next month. Under his plan, which most members of the city council have said they approve, the mayor would oversee the school superintendent and the system's management and budget.
•In Los Angeles, a state law passed in September gave Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa substantial power over the Los Angeles Unified School District, which includes 27 cities. However, a California court declared the law unconstitutional. Villaraigosa is appealing to the state Supreme Court.
Meanwhile, Villaraigosa is hoping winners of a school board runoff election in May will support his proposals to lengthen the school day, expand preschool programs and end social promotion.
•In Hartford, Conn., where the mayor appoints five of nine school board members, Mayor Eddie Perez named himself to the school board in December 2005, three years after the troubled school district emerged from state supervision. Perez is now its chairman.
"The relationship between the mayors and the schools has changed fundamentally," Stanford's Kirst says. "It's not whether the mayors will be involved in city schools, but how."
City mayors increasingly see poor-performing schools as a hindrance to economic development and see themselves as supermanagers who can fix them.
"In order to make the cities more competitive, (mayors) can no longer just revitalize downtown, or build bigger buildings or a museum or an aquarium," Wong says.
"These mayors fancy themselves as better-trained public administrators," Kirst says. "They have the hubris, or the guts, to take this on."
Proponents of mayoral control say schools must be well-run before they can teach well, and having the city's top leader run the schools often brings stability and better financial management.
Chicago Mayor Richard Daley balanced the school district's budget and negotiated a long-term contract with the teachers union. Boston Mayor Thomas Menino's first pick as schools chief, Thomas Payzant, led the district for more than 10 years.
"You need a lot of political stability on which to build. Boston and Chicago desperately needed that," says Michael Usdan of the Institute for Educational Leadership, a foundation that promotes collaboration between schools and other agencies and corporations.
Paul Vallas, who ran Chicago's schools from 1995 to 2001, says having the mayor in charge can bring more resources to schools with disadvantaged students.
"We're not fighting to get cops in schools, we're not fighting to get social services, we're not fighting with the regulatory departments to get permits to build new buildings," says Vallas, who now heads the school system in Philadelphia, where the mayor and governor jointly appoint the school board. "Why? Because any delay becomes the mayor's responsibility."
Wong says mayor-appointed school boards are more accountable than those elected by voters because so few people vote in school board elections — typically 10% or less in big cities. A mayor elected with turnout in the 50% range has a stronger public mandate, Wong says.
"Nobody knows who the school board reps are," Chavez says. "Everybody knows who the mayor is."
In Cleveland, where the mayor was given control of schools by the state Legislature in 1998, voters reaffirmed mayoral control in 2002. But they booted Mayor Jane Campbell in 2005 after one term, partly because she didn't improve schools fast enough.
A visionary or 'a bully'?
In Albuquerque, Chavez says he's ready to make unpopular decisions.
He wants the school board to turn over its capital budget to the city, including $351 million from a tax increase approved by voters last year. The recently approved capital budget will build five schools during the next five years, including one intended to relieve crowding at Cibola. But Chavez says he can build more schools faster.
Some school board members call Chavez a power-hungry politician with an eye on the New Mexico governor's race in 2010. (Chavez formed an exploratory committee in January.) "A bully," outgoing school board member Miguel Acosta says.
As evidence that the elected school board has produced results, Albuquerque Superintendent Elizabeth Everitt cites schools such as La Mesa Elementary. It's in a low-income neighborhood with mostly Spanish-speaking families and has met federal education standards for three years in a row.
"We are not in the toilet," Everitt says. "We are not broken."
Thanks to Chavez's continued criticism of the school board, a flurry of school governance proposals went to the state Legislature this year. A bill that would let Chavez appoint three of the school board's seven members died last month. A proposal to break up the city's sprawling school district into three smaller ones also failed. Even so, Chavez is pressing his takeover plan and is boosting the city's role in the school system.
Last June, he appointed an education coordinator to push his agenda with the school board and New Mexico's Legislature.
Albuquerque's city government supplements the schools' police force by assigning cops to schools. It recently kicked in $100,000 so that parents who volunteer in the schools no longer have to pay $36 each for their own background checks. And it pays $12 million annually for after-school programs, which Chavez wants to be run by teachers and focused on academic improvement.
"No city can be fully successful if its school system isn't fully successful," he says.