Big-money candidates to shift the future of APS board

PACs, real estate groups and GOP inflate the price of local school board campaigns

By: - January 6, 2022 6:28 am

(Getty Images)

New Mexico’s most expensive school board seats were filled Wednesday.

Danielle Gonzales, Crystal Tapia-Romero, Josefina Dominguez and Courtney Jackson were sworn in to take their seats as the newest Albuquerque Public Schools Board members during a virtual meeting at 5 p.m.

The four new members raised a staggering amount of money compared with other candidates leading up to their elections. Their final campaign expenditure reports show they needed nearly every dollar to win their seats. 

Gonzales is a Democrat and publicly supports mask and vaccine mandates, a possible return to remote learning and charter schools, according to a Q&A in the Albuquerque Journal.
Danielle Gonzales

Gonzales will represent District 3, which covers parts of Downtown and goes north along the river to include Valley High School. She raised $63,974 and spent $56,869, with a big chunk of her money coming via the 501c(4) group NewMexicoKidsCAN. Gonzales raised $9,844 in money and in-kind contributions between the group and its political action committee.

In total, she raised nearly twice as much as her three opponents combined.

PAC influence

NewMexicoKidsCAN was launched in 2018. According to its website, the nonprofit “advocates for community-informed, student-centered and research-backed education policies,” like standardized testing, school grading systems and performance evaluations for teachers. 

The organization also opposes any policy that adversely impacts charter schools.

The group’s political action committee was busy during the APS elections. 

Gonzales was one of four candidates endorsed by the NMKidsCAN Action Fund. Tapia-Romero and Jackson are also on that list, meaning only one candidate — Art Carrasco — who was supported by the PAC lost.

Josefina E. Domínguez

Domínguez won her seat in District 6, which covers parts of the Northeast Heights, including Sandia, Eldorado and Manzano High Schools.

She more than doubled the amount of money her opponent Art Carrasco raised. Dominguez was the only candidate to win that had support from the teacher and fire unions, traditional stalwarts in local school board races.

In total, she received more than $14,000 in union support.

In the lead up to the election, Domínguez said she supported a possible return to remote learning and potentially a vaccine mandate for APS students. She evaded a Journal question about mask mandates. She supports charter schools. She did not indicate a political party affiliation.

Domínguez raised $29,953 total and spent $27,896 on her campaign.

Carrasco spent all of the $12,247 he raised. His biggest contributions came from individuals and real estate-backed political action committees.

Julie Brenning was the other candidate with major support from local unions — and Sen. Martin Heinrich. She lost her high-dollar race to Jackson in District 7, home to La Cueva High School. Brenning pulled in and spent more than $38,000 versus the $53,080 spent by Jackson, who raised $62,960. 

Courtney I. Jackson

Jackson received $5,945 from NMKidsCAN Action Fund PAC, $2,500 from the NM Association of Realtors PAC and $2,000 from the Bernalillo County GOP. She spent most of that money on a top N.M. Republican strategist, Jay McCleskey, paying $49,714 to his firm McCleskey Media Strategies.

Jackson, a Republican, said she is opposed to a vaccine mandate for students and masks should be a choice between the student and parents. She does not support a return to remote learning but supports charter schools.

McCleskey famously ran ex-Gov. Susana Martinez’ campaigns and was her chief political adviser.

And then there is Tapia-Romero representing the Westside in District 5. She raised $54,461 and spent $46,863. The core of her support came between NMKidsCAN, county Republicans, real estate groups and the New Mexico Early Learning Academy, which she founded. 

The early childhood educator is on the New Mexico Childcare & Education Association and sits on the Early Learning Advisory Council to Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham.

It’s remains to be seen how the new board members will leave an impact on state’s largest school district. What’s obvious is the path they spent to get to the seats could have an impact on the next school board election in 2023. 

During the 2021 campaign season, Tapia-Romero opposed vaccine mandates, ducked a Journal question on mask mandates, said she is against a return to fully remote learning and supports charter schools. When it comes to political party affiliation, she lists “DTS” or decline-to-state.
Crystal Tapia-Romero

Of the three existing members on the school board, none raised as much as the four new members coming into office. 

Peggy Muller-Aragon won her seat in 2015 with a one time donation of $15,000 from then-Gov. Martinez. 

Barbara Peterson can likely hang with the new money — she won the District 4 seat that same year raising $31,981, and getting support from local unions.

Yolanda Cordova won her seat in 2017 with more than $12,000 on hand.

This will be the first APS board to be run entirely by women.

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Shaun Griswold
Shaun Griswold

Shaun Griswold is a journalist in Albuquerque. He is a citizen of the Pueblo of Laguna, and his ancestry also includes Jemez and Zuni on the maternal side of his family. He grew up in Albuquerque and Gallup. He brings a decade of print and broadcast news experience. Most recently he covered Indigenous affairs with New Mexico In Depth. Shaun reports on issues important to Native Americans in urban and tribal communities throughout the state, including education and child welfare.