August 7, 2017

Budget cuts hit teachers, students in classroom

Second grade teacher Billie Thurman-Helean is about to start her third year teaching at Maggie Cordova Elementary School in Rio Rancho. Her life dream was to teach, she said.

“I’ve always wanted to do this,” she told NM Political Report.

She didn’t realize, however, that she would pay for school supplies out of her own pocket. As a kid, she remembers bringing a backpack and lunch to school, and having school supplies  available there.

But that’s no longer the case.

This story is part of Education Week, our look at topics tied to education.

Now when she heads to the store, she looks over the pencils and notebooks and wonders if she should just spend her own money on supplies or ask parents to send their kids to school with the things they’ll need to learn during the day.

“I have to stop myself from spending,” she said. “I have to make a deliberate, conscious effort to not [keep] spend[ing] on my classroom.”

When legislators and others talk about budget cuts in percents or millions of dollars, the impacts can seem abstract. But the real effects of the budget cuts are found in the classroom, where teachers increasingly must decide how much of their own money they’re going to spend on students.

School funding debates

Arguments over school funding have become increasingly fractious. In fact, testimony in a lawsuit backed by teachers unions against the state over school funding ended Friday.  During the nine-week trial, lawyers argued that  the state is inadequately funding public schools, which deprives students, especially lower-income students, of a sufficient education. The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty say this puts the state in violation of the state constitution.

Earlier this year, more than 1,500 people, including teachers, parents and students, gathered outside the Roundhouse to say legislators and the governor should not cut school funding. In the past, such cuts would be seen as something to avoid at all costs. But as the budget situation in the state worsened, thanks in part to a drop in oil and gas prices, legislators cut funding to K-12 education in 2016 and then cut reserves severely in 2017.

State Sen. Bill Soules, D-Las Cruces, said these reserves are like a checking account for the schools.

“That money is being used and it’s not just sitting around doing nothing,” he said.

Santa Fe Public Schools Superintendent Veronica García told NM Political Report she felt the March demonstration outside the Roundhouse made a difference.

“We saw lesser cuts and so I think that made a positive difference because we were planning on worst-case scenarios right through the end,” she said.

García said they were bracing for cuts that “could be substantial in percent.”

Soules said the cuts date back to the Great Recession, from before his time in the legislature. With education making up a sizable portion of the state’s budget, if the state is relying on only budget cuts to balance the budget, cuts to education are inevitable, he said.

The consequences for the cuts range big and small. Some school districts, like Cobre Consolidated Schools in southern New Mexico, now only have classes four days a week. In Rio Rancho, teachers and and staff received notices that they must remove microwaves, coffee pots and other appliances to save money on the district’s monthly electricity bill.

These impacts hit students directly, Thurman-Helean said.
“We’re not given the resources to teach to do adequately enough to do these things.”

And they are being asked to do more with less, she says. Last year, her classroom had 27 students; this year some teachers expect the class sizes to be even bigger. Soules said a small increase of two-three students, as has happened in recent years, may not seem like a big thing, but it’s a ten percent increase.

“It’s a huge difference in just how tight the classroom feels, being able to have individual time with students,” he said.

The Center for Public Education says ideally, classes shouldn’t have more than 18 students.

García said students also miss out on are outside activities. If a team wins a competition and qualifies for a regional or national competition, they can’t afford to send the students to that competition.

“We have to look at where can we borrow from Peter to pay Paul to fund that or reach out to the community,” García said.

When the school district needs money, it increasingly looks to the community.

“We really are working diligently with our community to engage our community partners to help support us and they have stepped up to the plate,” García said.

She mentions math tutors and the Math Amigos team, which is a collaboration with the city’s interfaith community and truancy coaches in the district—again, only possible because of help from the community.

Help for teachers

García said  professional development for teachers is another casualty of cuts. The professional development can be training for a new curriculum to aid students’ learning or for training on new tests.

Travel and other expenses for these trainings are diminished, and that can affect teacher performance.

The state does provide a small token of funding for teachers. In 2015 the Public Education Department started providing $100 gift cards to teachers annually to buy school supplies for their classrooms.

Teachers unions called the gesture an “insult” and launched a campaign to send postcards saying “$100 will not buy my silence” to Gov. Susana Martinez to show their disapproval.

For many teachers, who spend hundreds of dollars of their own money each year on classroom supplies, the cards were hard to resist.

“As much as I didn’t want to use it, I did use it,” Thurman-Heleani said.