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Civil rights claim seeks $1.8 billion or in-person schooling

March 3, 2021 GMT
Acting elementary school principal Trish Gharrity walks with fire marshal Geronimo Griego during a COVID-19 safety inspection at the Nina Otero Community School on Monday, Feb. 8, 2021, in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The school plans to open its doors to around 60 of its 700 enrolled students on Feb. 22. Capacity is limited because only around 15% of teachers volunteered to work in-person. After a virtual ban on large-scale in-person learning programs for the past 11 months, New Mexico schools can now bring students in-person at 50% capacity after passing fire marshal inspections, and other requirements by state officials. (AP Photo/Cedar Attanasio)
Acting elementary school principal Trish Gharrity walks with fire marshal Geronimo Griego during a COVID-19 safety inspection at the Nina Otero Community School on Monday, Feb. 8, 2021, in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The school plans to open its doors to around 60 of its 700 enrolled students on Feb. 22. Capacity is limited because only around 15% of teachers volunteered to work in-person. After a virtual ban on large-scale in-person learning programs for the past 11 months, New Mexico schools can now bring students in-person at 50% capacity after passing fire marshal inspections, and other requirements by state officials. (AP Photo/Cedar Attanasio)

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — Accusations of civil rights violations have been filed against the Albuquerque Public Schools Board of Education on behalf of students who cannot return to in-person learning, in a notice that is a necessary precursor to litigation.

Citing a section of the New Mexico Constitution that guarantees the right to a sufficient and equal education, and a statute that ensures children the right to attend public school, the letter claims the Albuquerque Public Schools district is on the hook for funding private education.

“The Board failed to timely act to provide a free and adequate, in-person education,” says the notice filed on behalf of an unnamed student and similarly situated pupils. “Consequently, (the child) hereby makes a demand for compensation in the amount of $20,000 per academic school year starting Feb. 8.”

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Given the district’s 90,000 students, the legal notice contends that its plaintiff is part of a class owed $1.8 billion, or slightly more than the district’s annual budget. The district accounts for about a quarter of the state’s students.

Albuquerque Public Schools spokeswoman Monica Armenta declined to comment on the claim notice or provide a district response because the situation involves pending litigation.

About 20 schools in the district are restarting in-person learning this week with teachers who volunteered to attend to small groups of students who have special educational needs, struggled with online leaning or don’t have full internet access. Roughly 1,340 students are scheduled to participate.

Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced on Jan. 26 that her prohibition on most in-person learning would be lifted Feb. 8 to allow for hybrid models that let students attend classes around two days per week.

The Albuquerque Public School Board avoided making a decision in a Feb. 4 meeting and voted on Feb. 17 to explore allowing more small groups of students to attend school in-person, in addition to existing programs for special education students.

Other school districts have elected to keep most students in virtual learning for the rest of the spring semester. Some opened on a limited basis, allowing students to attend in-person based on the availability of teachers who volunteer.

School board member Peggy Muller-Aragon, an advocate for broader school re-openings, said parents are turning to the judiciary in desperation.

“I’ve heard other parents that are very upset because they feel their children are being denied an appropriate education,” she said. “They don’t know what else to do.”

During the Feb. 17 board meeting, Superintendent Scott Elder addressed the potential for civil rights litigation, saying that “it wouldn’t just be us.”

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Attanasio is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues. Follow Attanasio on Twitter.