January 24, 2022

New Mexico educators demand changes in classrooms

Hundreds of teachers and education activists protest outside the Roundhouse on Sunday.

About 500 teachers and education activists marched Sunday outside the Roundhouse to demand better pay, smaller class sizes and better classroom results.

Participants carried placards that read “Teachers Need Good Pay to Stay” and “No Teachers No Future” at the noon rally, organized by the American Federation of Teachers New Mexico and the National Education Association-New Mexico.

Julie Wojtko, a teacher and an advanced education services facilitator at Arrowhead Park Early College High School in Las Cruces, came to the rally with her 11-year-old son, Aiden.

“I’m here because teachers and students are more exhausted than ever, and we need the governor and our legislators’ help to reduce our class sizes [and] to increase our wages to reflect the work that we’ve been putting in during the pandemic,” said Wojtko, 41.

She said supported Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s proposal to increase teachers’ wages by 7 percent this year, given how much her health insurance costs have risen recently.

“Teachers are overworked,” said Carmen Merlano-Whitlock, a fifth-grade teacher at the Virtual Learning Academy in Las Cruces. “We’re not getting paid the amount of salary that true professionals should get.”

“And our class sizes are too big,” added Merlano-Whitlock, 55, who said she has been teaching for 17 years. “Studies have shown that smaller class sizes reap better benefits, better learning, better achievement for the children.”

In September, one month into the school year, researchers at New Mexico State University found that schools across the state had more than 1,000 unfulfilled teachings positions. In 2020, that number was 571.

To address the shortfall, the Public Education Department, along with Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, requested $280 million to increase teachers’ salaries and provide a wage increase of up to 7 percent for all school staff next school year.

The governor and Legislature are required to increase resources to the state’s public education system, particularly to impoverished students and English-language learners, as prescribed by the Yazzie/Martinez lawsuit.

District Judge Sarah Singleton in 2018 ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, a coalition of parents, students, educators and lawmakers, and ordered state leaders to enact plans and programs to help those students.

Kimberley Washburn, a special education teacher at Francis X. Nava Elementary School in Santa Fe, said, “I’ve been in teaching for 31 years, and we need help.”

“We need more full-time counselors, full-time nurses, full-time social workers, full-time mental health workers,” she added. “The teachers and the educational assistants that are working super hard are doing three jobs at once because we can’t get subs to come in and help us.”

Washburn, 53, came to the rally because “I think we have to share. People have to hear our voices.”

Monica Brycelea, a fifth-grader at Gonzales Community School in Santa Fe, was invited onto the event stage and told the crowd: “Remember to build a community around our schools. Don’t forget, you’re here for kids like me, and all of New Mexico’s kids.”

Becky Pringle, president of the National Education Association teachers union, said, “As more and more educators are leaving the profession, those of us who are remaining are being asked to do more with less.”

She pleaded with attendees to make their voices heard and led the crowd in a homage to Aretha Franklin’s rendition of the song “Respect.”

“We are calling on lawmakers to raise the pay at a level that will stop the flow of educators out of this state,” she said.

Pringle stressed that lawmakers need to address teacher compensation broadly.

“They have to think about, not just the wages, but health care and pensions,” she said after the rally. “Making sure that those people who have dedicated their lives to educating the students of New Mexico can retire with dignity.”