By Margaret O’Hara, The Santa Fe New Mexican
A challenging task awaits New Mexico lawmakers in the next 30 days: Reconciling three very different spending plans for K-12 public education.
Schools are expected to receive at least $4 billion from the state in fiscal year 2025 — the single largest chunk of what is likely to be a record-high budget of more than $10 billion. Even the most conservative education proposal would allocate an increase over the current year of $200 million.
But how money for schools should be spent varies widely in the plans introduced by the Legislative Finance Committee, the Legislative Education Study Committee and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s office — with significant differences in salary increases for teachers and other school workers, statewide literacy initiatives and cost estimates for universal free meals.
“Just keeping it all straight in your head is hard enough,” said Rep. Joy Garratt, D-Albuquerque, a member of the House Education Committee.
The Legislative Education Study Committee, which adopted its budget proposal Monday, recommends the biggest pay hike for educators: a 6% raise at a cost of $190 million. The Legislative Finance Committee is offering up 2% raises plus a 2% cost-of-living adjustment — totaling about $125 million — while the executive budget includes pay increases of 3%, at a cost of $94 million.
The raises would be the latest in a series of salary increases for New Mexico teachers. The Legislature in 2022 increased the base pay to $50,000, $60,000 and $70,000 annually, depending on which type of license a teacher holds within the state’s three-tiered system, and offered 6% raises, on average, for all educators in 2023.
The three spending plans proposed salary increases at the same levels — 6%, 4% and 3% — for transportation staff and other workers.
The LESC backs a bill to increase minimum salaries for some of the lowest-paid school employees, including education assistants, nutrition workers and secretaries. Endorsed by the committee in December, the bill would require minimum pay of $30,000 per year or $15 per hour for full-time public school employees. It comes with an appropriation of nearly $25 million, which is accounted for in the LESC’s budget proposal but not in the governor’s or the LFC’s.
Rep. Susan Herrera, D-Embudo, took issue with the governor and LFC for leaving out funds to raise the minimum pay. During the LESC meeting Monday, she and other lawmakers asked why a line item endorsed by the interim education committee would be omitted from the powerful finance committee’s overall spending plan for the state and questioned the LFC’s tight grip on the purse strings.
“Money should follow policy — not policy follows money, and that happens way too often,” said Herrera, a member of the House Education Committee.
The three budgets also divide when it comes to funding for literacy initiatives.
New Mexico has been working for years to improve abysmal student reading proficiency rates by implementing a teaching technique called structured literacy, in which teachers explicitly and systematically instruct students on elements essential to reading. The Public Education Department plans to continue training in structured literacy for all elementary school teachers — an effort that began a few years ago — and has requested funding to train fifth grade and middle school teachers in the technique in fiscal year 2025.
Lujan Grisham announced in September her plans to request a one-time appropriation of $30 million to start a structured literacy institute to focus on teacher training. Her budget recommendation and the LESC’s both include the $30 million.
The governor’s budget includes an additional $5 million for literacy initiatives in middle schools and high schools.
The LFC, however, doesn’t seem to buy into plans for a literacy institute: It’s plan allocates just $3 million to continue structured literacy initiatives.
Each budget allocates funds for universal school meals, an initiative that resulted from legislation approved in 2023. While the legislative committees included a little over $20 million to feed New Mexico’s K-12 students breakfast and lunch every day, the Governor’s Office anticipated a cost of nearly $44 million.
Lujan Grisham’s cost outlook might be the one that would most accurately cover the costs.
LESC Director Gwen Perea Warniment told lawmakers Monday the free meal initiative led to an increase in the number of schools and students participating in meal programs, pushing up the overall cost.
“Their number might be right,” she said.