Public Education Secretary-designate Kurt Steinhaus presented next year’s budgetary request before the Legislative Finance Committee on Friday and was met with questions from lawmakers about spending on some big-ticket items.

Among the items discussed was a $34 million request to adjust funding based on enrollment projections that districts made this summer for the coming school year. Amid the various line items, the $200 million request announced Wednesday to bump up teacher salary minimums by nearly $10,000 per tier came up but wasn’t a major focus.

As the 80-day mark for the school year approaches, and next month’s legislative session nears, the Public Education Department has yet to release 40-day enrollment numbers for all districts, which would give lawmakers a better idea of enrollment trends this school year.

In a recent email, the Public Education Department’s record custodian said the data was not complete. Spokeswoman Judy Robinson told The New Mexican the school budget department was waiting on some district numbers before certifying the data.

In a recent interview, Steinhaus said the state’s numbers are expected to be relatively flat.

Data from Santa Fe Public Schools shows enrollment at 11,176 this fall, compared with 12,033 at this time last year. Per-student funds from the State Equalization Grant are typically based on 80- and 120-day enrollment counts.

Holding education institutions “harmless” for enrollment loss is one of the Santa Fe district’s four legislative priorities this year.

The Legislative Finance Committee chair and vice chair both raised eyebrows at the enrollment-growth request, and while the Public Education Department didn’t list a line item asking for the same “hold harmless” provision as last year, the lawmakers said they were hesitant to support the same kind of funding again.

“We did that last year because of COVID. We know there’s a declining population,” said vice chair Sen. George Munoz, D-Gallup. “I don’t think we can continue that.”

With the decline in student enrollment last year, Rep. Patty Lundstrom, D-Gallup, questioned where $34 million for enrollment growth would be spent.

Steinhaus said that the $34 million figure might need “some major surgery” as more enrollment data becomes available.

Legislative Education Study Committee and gubernatorial candidate Rep. Rebecca Dow, R-Truth or Consequences, wondered in a text message Friday how long lawmakers would be expected to boost per-pupil funding for schools where enrollment has dropped.

“Until our schools are fully open for learning, educators are allowed to focus on the basics, and school boards, parents [and] administrators are valued, no amount of money will fix our broken system,” she said.

And while some lawmakers feel footing the bill for potential enrollment losses from this year might not be worth it, others might be interested in providing more support in the face of population decline amid COVID-19, and a longer-term decline that has existed pre-pandemic.

Legislative Education Study Committee vice chair Rep. G. Andrés Romero, D-Albuquerque, who proposed during the previous legislative session that district per-pupil funding be determined by pre-pandemic levels, said he might consider similar legislation this session.

He said funding stability was key for districts trying to hire staff and plan services for the coming school year and that this year’s “hold harmless” provision, which paid schools with enrollment-growth units based on student number projections, was a “gamble.”

“I think with compensation increases across the board, that’s awesome, but it’s just as important we give school districts certainty in the amount of money that they’re going to receive for students to provide the services they’ve been providing,” Romero said.

Romero also expressed excitement at the proposals surrounding a 7 percent increase in wages for all school staff, and the proposed rise in teacher salary minimums. In total, the two requests would cost roughly $280 million.

“Certainly, we’d always like to see it higher,” he said Friday. “Our ancillary staff are and continue to be the lowest-paid on the school site and are vitally important to everyday operations at the schools.”

He added: “We’re in this difficult spot where we have budgetary considerations divorced from policy considerations. This hasn’t been new, about teacher and staff shortages at school sites. But we’ll have to wait and see what the session may hold.”

During the committee meeting Friday, Lundstrom expressed concern the new teacher minimums would apply to teachers with state-issued waivers to be in classrooms while still working toward their official licensure.

“When I think about professional licensure, sometimes people don’t get through,” she said. “It would just seem to me that those that have the full licensure would be those we’re focusing in on.”

Legislative Education Study Committee chair Sen. Bill Soules, D-Las Cruces, said in an interview Friday evening that budget requests from the legislative finance and education study committees seemed to pair well with the Public Education Department’s initial request.

“There are a couple of things where there are still some questions or details on whether there’s any money for dealing with compaction from raising the minimum [salaries],” he said. “But I’m very pleased that all three groups seem to have pretty similar priorities.”

He said, with students still dealing with COVID-19, there’s a discussion to be had about whether to base per-pupil funding on pre-pandemic enrollment numbers, but he said issues around enrollment weren’t a concern as of yet.

The Legislative Education Study Committee has not yet released its budget proposal ahead of the 2022 session.

The proposal also includes funding for $1.5 million toward teacher recruitment; $2 million toward special education services, including de-escalation training for all educational staff; $10 million toward literacy efforts; and $4 million toward behavioral health support in schools.

Overall, the Public Education Department’s funding request represents a 13 percent increase from last year, as the department faces lower proficiency rates among students and a shortage of teachers and school staff.

Also Friday, Steinhaus turned his concern toward new data from the Public Education Department, which shows 30 percent of the state’s public school students have missed 10 percent or more of the school year so far.

That’s up from 16 percent of students during the entire 2019-20 school year.

“It hasn’t really been talked about a lot because it’s hard to look at,” Steinhaus said. “But I thought it was important for you to know.”

(4) comments

Toby Wright

$4 million for mental health services is merely scratching the surface. Do we need an Oxford or a Parkland event here before the powers that be realize that our students are in bad shape and need consistent, reliable, IN SCHOOL mental health support?

Chris Mechels

Paying more for Non Performance??? So New Mexican!! What a lovely incentive system!! Begins with the Governor's office, which has given her staff very large increases while the state flounders.

Lyndell Vallner

Perhaps a deeper question and study should be asked...why is the population of NM getting smaller. Think about the reasons why citizens are moving from one state to a different one. It's not all about Covid.

Jitty Bap

The population (and number of school-aged kids) is not necessarily dropping. Students are dropping out of elementary and middle school, or rarely attending.

Student population counts are taken on the 40th, 80th, and 120th day of school. A kid not present in the classroom at the moment attendance is taken does not get funded.

Welcome to the discussion.

Thank you for joining the conversation on Please familiarize yourself with the community guidelines. Avoid personal attacks: Lively, vigorous conversation is welcomed and encouraged, insults, name-calling and other personal attacks are not. No commercial peddling: Promotions of commercial goods and services are inappropriate to the purposes of this forum and can be removed. Respect copyrights: Post citations to sources appropriate to support your arguments, but refrain from posting entire copyrighted pieces. Be yourself: Accounts suspected of using fake identities can be removed from the forum.