January 23, 2020

Education committee members decry public school spending plans

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Lawmakers on the state House and Senate education committees on Wednesday decried the lack of funds proposed for some of their priorities for fiscal year 2021, indicating a deeper conflict is broiling over the largest share of the state’s budget as the Legislature and governor begin hashing out differences in their spending plans.

During a joint hearing on public school funding proposed by both the Legislative Finance Committee and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, education committee members said their input over the past year has been ignored.

The initiatives they cited as underfinanced or omitted completely ranged from cybersecurity to teacher recruitment and retention efforts to providing feminine hygiene products for teen girls.

Rep. Linda Trujillo, a Santa Fe Democrat and former school board member who serves on the interim Legislative Education Study Committee, said she didn’t think the voices of educators, school administrators and higher education officials were “entirely reflected” in the competing budget proposals.

“I feel like we have been left in the lurch,” added Rep. Christine Trujillo, D-Albuquerque, a former teacher and chairwoman of the Legislative Education Study Committee.

That committee had recommended a much larger increase in funds for public schools in its own budget proposal than either the Legislative Finance Committee or the governor — a hike of $343 million, compared to the LFC’s recommendation of $210.5 million and the governor’s proposed increase of $215.9 million.

In the 2019 legislative session, Lujan Grisham and the Legislature  approved a $480 million surge for public schools — largely the result of a state judge’s ruling in a civil suit, Yazzie/Martinez v. State of New Mexico. The judge said the state was failing some of its most vulnerable children: kids from low-income families, special-education students, Native American children and English-language learners. She ordered the Public Education Department and Legislature to resolve the shortfall but did not put a price tag on the reforms.

All three education spending plans include an increase for fiscal year 2021 to further address the needs of those students, but critics have said the hikes are too small.

The three plans also include funding for more teacher raises, following a 6 percent increase approved in the 2019 legislative session. The Education Study Committee is seeking an average teacher salary increase of 6 percent for fiscal year 2021, while the Finance Committee has proposed an average 3 percent raise and the Governor’s Office wants a 4 percent raise.

The plan to allow districts to divvy funds for “average” raises, which means some teachers would see larger salary increases than others, did not go over well with some lawmakers. 

“Don’t say every teacher is going to get 4 percent when it’s not [true],” said Sen. Bill Soules, D-Las Cruces, who is chairman of the Senate Education Committee.

Several members of the House and Senate education committees cited a lack of funding in the Legislative Finance Committee’s budget plan to boost cybersecurity in public schools and cover costs of other data system upgrades. The governor has proposed $2.25 million for such technology initiatives, an amount the education committee members said fell short of the need.

And only the executive budget plan included funding — $170,000 — to ensure public schools provide feminine hygiene products for girls, an initiative several lawmakers pushed for in last year’s session.

Other areas of concern for lawmakers on the education committees included ensuring all low-income students receive free or reduced-price school lunches, staffing vacancies at the state Public Education Department, improving childhood literacy rates and building the education workforce at a time when districts statewide are struggling with shortages of classroom teachers.

Rep. Andrés Romero, D-Albuquerque, a high school history teacher and member of both the House Education Committee and the Legislative Education Study Committee, said in an interview after the hearing he was disappointed with the public school recommendations from both the governor and the Legislative Finance Committee — in particular the amount of funds proposed for at-risk students and teacher recruitment and retention programs. “There was a lot of good stuff we worked on that’s not in there,” Romero said.

Sen. Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, vice chairwoman of the Legislative Education Study Committee, was one of the more optimistic lawmakers at Wednesday’s hearing. She said the three conflicting education budget proposals offer “good road map, if we can just hone in.”

Still, Stewart warned, “We’re about to go through a very messy process.”