Proposed education budget cuts could worsen racial and economic inequities in the state, according to some school superintendents.
Veronica Garcia, the superintendent of Santa Fe Public Schools, said that if the Legislative Finance Committee’s proposed budget cuts in education are passed, she expects to be looking at a $10.3 million hole in her district’s budget. She is starting with a $7 million deficit in her school budget and if the LFC’s proposed cuts go through, she expects to see another $3.3 million loss.
Like the state, Garcia has to balance her budget annually. She says that situation will leave her with no choice but to make cuts that will enlarge classroom size, reduce programming and shrink ancillary roles such as social workers, librarians, nurse aides and nurses.
“I already don’t have enough full-time nurses and under COVID, I really need it,” Garcia told NM Political Report.
The LFC recommends cutting the school budget by 0.6 percent, according to the proposed budget. But, the budget also factors in federal CARES Act money, and shows that the public education budget will increase, despite that 0.6 percent reduction, by 2.8 percent.
According to the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, the LFC is making a false claim by giving the appearance that the education budget will increase by $88.9 million despite the state’s cuts.
State Sen. John Arthur Smith and Rep. Patricia Lundstrom, chair and vice chair respectively, of the LFC, didn’t respond to messages but Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s Press Secretary Nora Myers Sackett said the state’s “financial circumstances necessitate some difficult reductions.”
“Both the LFC and executive frameworks reflect that reality. The governor absolutely believes the state should preserve funding for critical below the line programs that support educational equity efforts and try to minimize cuts in other areas of the budget,” Myers Sackett wrote.
But the Center on Law and Poverty said through an email the claim of $88.9 million in the education budget is misleading because money from the CARES Act for the schools was intended for COVID-19-related costs and has already been spent.
Gallup-McKinley County School Superintendent Mike Hyatt said that before the pandemic began, the inequities in education in New Mexico were many and varied.
He named off facilities as one problem.
“If you go around the state, you see different level facilities. The state requires sufficient uniformity, but you see drastic differences in space, size and amenities to provide an education,” Hyatt said.
Another area where students in Hyatt’s district have been left behind historically is technology and internet connectivity. That particularly put limits on the students’ education during the last few months when schools had to close due to the public health emergency.
“Less than half of our students have a device and connectivity to participate,” Hyatt said. “What do we do? Teach some of them and leave the others behind?”
Louise Martinez and Wilhelmina Yazzie sued the state in what is commonly referred to as the Yazzie/Martinez case and in 2018 the court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, stating that the state had “violated the rights of at-risk students by failing to provide them” with a public education that is uniform with the rest of the state.
The Center on Law and Poverty helped the plaintiffs bring their suit. The state, flush with an oil and gas surplus, passed a budget this year that would have increased public school funding by $206 million for the 2021 school year over the current year, according to the Center on Law and Poverty. This would have represented a 6.4 percent increase.
If the proposed education budget is passed this week during the legislature’s special session, which starts Thursday, the state will reduce that by $224.5 million, the nonprofit group said.
“The gains we made, they’re evaporating right before our eyes,” Garcia said.
What can the state do?
Both Hyatt and Garcia want to see the state take money from the Land Grant Permanent Fund and use it so the state won’t have to make any cuts in education. According to the New Mexico State Investment Council’s website, the fund is one of the largest of its kind in the country. Every year it provides money to the educational system. In fiscal year 2020, it provided $784.2 million to the state’s education budget.
The fund is also known as the state’s “rainy day fund,” and Garcia and Hyatt said the state should take more from it during the special session.
The Legislature would not be able to tap the fund by itself, since it would require a constitutional amendment to access. This would require a majority of both chambers to vote for changes and for voters to approve the changes in the next general election.
Efforts to tap the fund in recent years have failed to pass the Legislature, usually failing to pass the Senate Finance Committee.
“I don’t know what kind of hurricane we have to be in for those dollars to be used to help the budget,” Hyatt said. “It’s about as rainy a day as we can get right now.”
Hyatt said the state has made some improvements due to the Yazzie/Martinez case, but “it had not reached a level to provide a good education for all students.”
Hyatt’s district educates 11,000 students, 80 percent of whom are Native American, 16 percent are Latino or Hispanic and the rest is “a hodge podge,” he said.
The LFC proposal would reduce appropriations for “culturally and linguistically appropriate instructional materials and curricula” from $9 million to $1 million, the Center on Law and Poverty said. It would also eliminate funding for the pilot K-5 plus program, which was meant to provide additional instruction days for students who need help catching up, according to Garcia. Overall, the “special appropriations” school budget will be reduced from $90.8 million to $34.6 million, the Center on Law and Poverty said.
Cuts like that will affect the Santa Fe School District as well, which of its 13,000 students, 70 percent are on the free and reduced lunch program, Garcia said.
She said her district has a high percentage of English Language learners and a high percentage of kids live in poverty, she said.
Hyatt said that even money his district received from the federal CARES Act may be stretched thin because the cost of personal protective equipment (PPE) has increased substantially since the pandemic began. The CARES Act money was, in part, supposed to enable school districts to buy PPE for students and staff.
Other barriers his district struggles with are high transportation costs to bus students across the largest district in the state, English as a Second Language learners and high poverty rates. Add to that, the pandemic has hit McKinley County particularly hard. Both he and Garcia expressed worry that students in their districts who have lost loved ones or been under strain because of the pandemic may need extra help at school.
“It’ll take decades to heal,” Garcia said.
Correction: A sentence was added to clarify that the Santa Fe County Public School’s potential $10.3 million budget deficit is the result of an already existing $7 million budget deficit and an expected $3.3 million loss if the Legislative Finance Committee’s proposed cuts are passed.