Local Voices: An open letter to the community

Schools superintendent talked with New York writers who ranked Farmington as worst place to raise a kid

Eugene J. Schmidt, Ph.D.
Superintendent, Farmington Municipal Schools
Dr. Gene Schmidt

Image is everything some say, which is why I felt compelled to respond to a recent East Coast online opinion column by 24/7wallst.com identifying Farmington as the worst place to raise a child in the country. 

This is not the image I believe Farmingtonians share of our community. In contrast, our community’s image of Farmington is a much more positive. The Farmington I know is filled with neighborhood parks, a school system that academically outperforms its New Mexico peers, populated with a first responder teams that are highly effective in making our community safe, medical services that are the envy of the nation and a community filled with shopping and dining choices. 

So, what about our image offers proof of this rating?

A negative, national opinion article can provoke anger and it would be easy to blame the conclusions on the bias of persons who haven’t visited our community. Rather than stew and storm, it makes more sense to reflect and attempt to understand what others may see and use this as an opportunity to change the perception.

 In a recent telephone conversation with 24/7wallst staff, I sought to understand the rating system and what we as a community might do flip this script. From that conversation, I gleaned several contributing factors that the writers used to justify their rating. I believe if we focus on improvements in these categories, through an investment of federal, state and local dollars and better messaging on what our community truly has to offer, the outside view of our hometown will improve. 

♦ 24/7wallst writers state, “A child’s development has been shown to greatly benefit by starting education with a preschool program.” Pre-school programs serve as an important jump start to a K-12 education. Although Farmington Municipal Schools and a number of private or for-profit early childhood services provide early learning opportunities, too many children do not have access to prekindergarten experiences, which means many children enroll in school without kindergarten readiness skills. The Farmington Board of Education understands this and has submitted a resolution to the New Mexico School Boards Association (NMSBA) that calls for greater state funding and more opportunities for early learning programs for 3- and 4-year-olds.  

1. 24/7wallst writers also wrote, “Children who complete their education and graduate from high school have greater economic mobility than those who do not.” Farmington Municipal Schools’ graduation rate of 65% was well below the national average of 84%.  We can and will do better. The Farmington Board of Education recognizes the importance of raising the graduation rate by providing educational opportunities whereby graduates are career-and-college ready. It would also be remiss not to mention the First Pillar of FMS’s Strategic Plan is “Improve academic excellence and prepare all students for college, career and life success.” It is important for us as a community to help by talking up the importance of graduation and by serving as #graduationcoaches for at-risk students. 

♦ Call for higher teacher pay – while not in the 24/7wallst opinion piece, it was discussed with 24/7wallst staff, who noted New Mexico’s teacher pay was well below other states. The Farmington Board of Education understands this and included a 1% pay raise above the 2.5 percent provided by the state for school year 2018-19. Still, more is needed, and the Board of Education submitted a resolution to the NMSBA to call upon the State Legislature to be the first of the Four Corners states to raise starting teacher pay to $40,000. As a community and state, raising teacher salaries helps retain the high-quality teachers we have as well as become more competitive in recruiting future teachers into the profession. 

The article also mentions 52.5 percent of residents report they do not have a place to exercise. With 57 city parks, school grounds filled with playground equipment and miles of wide open spaces with trail systems and campgrounds, residents should be enjoying what Farmington has to offer. I would also encourage outdoor enthusiasts to continue promoting our area’s recreational potential through the city’s #joltyourjourney campaign. 

Lastly, Farmington’s violent crime rate was listed as reasoning for our ranking. This statistic is misleading because the geographical area used to generate this number extends well beyond Farmington’s city limits. 

Our students and staff are grateful for an agreement with the Farmington Police Department that provides School Resource Officers at school sites and events that does much to ensure the safety of our students and staff.  

Understanding the importance of school safety, the Farmington School Board issued a resolution to the New Mexico School Boards Association that calls upon the State Legislature to allow retired police officers to return to work as School Resource Officers. In addition, a recent survey by SafeHavens identified Farmington schools as among the nation’s most prepared.

In closing, rather than be angry at the 24/7wallst writers, we, as a school system and community, should use their words as a rallying cry to get better. In our call to be proactive, I encourage you to speak with our legislators about the importance of increased funding for early childhood education, increased teacher pay, and return to work for retired police officers. 

While we are waiting for the legislative session to begin, get out and enjoy our city parks. And finally, this is not a time to stick our heads in the sand and ignore this call to action to become a better community. Working together, let’s flip the script and become America’s best city to raise children.

Eugene J. Schmidt, Ph.D. is the superintendent of Farmington Municipal Schools.