Toni Seidler has been a teacher for 34 years, but never has her wallet gotten the jolt it received Wednesday.
“Everything sounds great,” she said a few hours after Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed two bills into law that pump hundreds of millions into New Mexico’s public schools — including funding for expanded learning programs, more dollars for at-risk children and, yes, pay increases for the state’s 22,000 teachers.
For Seidler, who works at Albuquerque’s Garfield Middle School, the governor’s signature means she will go from earning about $55,500 to about $60,000 next year.
In other words, she said, “the largest raise I ever got as a teacher.”
In approving two mirror pieces of legislation, Senate Bill 1 and House Bill 5, both of which lay out spending policies for a total of $3.25 billion for public education in fiscal year 2020, Lujan Grisham called the $486 million increase over the current fiscal year budget “almost a miracle.”
During a news conference at Santa Fe’s Salazar Elementary School, the governor took care to note how lawmakers from both parties in the House and Senate had to come together to set K-12 education in New Mexico on a different path. The state for years has languished at or near the bottom in national reports.
The appropriation is included in HB 2, the state budget, which the governor has yet to sign.
During the 60-day legislative session, Lujan Grisham repeatedly referred to a need to make a “moonshot” for public education. House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, referred to that catchphrase Wednesday by telling the governor, “We built the rocket, the rocket is fueled and, with your signature, we will have ignition for the moonshot.”
“That is liftoff!” the governor said after signing the bills.
The education bills provide more than $100 million in extra funding for the state’s at-risk students and grant money that can help districts implement an extended summer learning program known as K-5 Plus.
The legislation includes an across-the-board 6 percent raise for all school employees, with guaranteed starting pay of $40,000, $50,000 and $60,000 for the state’s teachers — depending on their status in New Mexico’s three-tiered licensure system.
Whether the state can sustain this financial commitment when much of its annual revenue is dependant upon the boom-or-bust nature of the oil and gas industry is another matter.
The governor, as well as Egolf and Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, said they will look for ways to expand and diversify the state’s economy to ensure public schools receive more money. They pointed to a newly created tax reform bill, which the governor has yet to sign, as a way to increase revenue.
“We have to make the commitment substantive and sustainable,” Egolf said.
“It’s incumbent upon us to not only sustain it, but step it up,” Wirth said.
Lujan Grisham said she wants lawmakers to find money to provide another $5,000 annual raise for teachers in next year’s session. Egolf said her challenge is “no joke” and that lawmakers will look for ways to make it happen.
By signing the bills into law, the governor also is preparing the state to meet the mandates of a 2018 District Court ruling that says New Mexico is not meeting its constitutional requirement to provide all students with an equitable public education.
That decision, handed down by First Judicial District Judge Sarah Singleton of Santa Fe, says New Mexico has shortchanged several groups of students with the highest needs — those learning English as a second language, special-needs students, low-income kids and Native American children.
As of April 16, Singleton’s ruling gives both parties in that lawsuit, Yazzie-Martinez v. New Mexico, the chance to submit arguments about whether the state is meeting the mandates of her decision.
Lujan Grisham said she expects the state to issue a report for the court, identifying what it is doing to address the needs of at-risk students — including offering more dollars and programs to schools with high levels of impoverished, minority and dual-language students.
Still, she reiterated concerns she voiced last month that it should not be up to the court system to “prescriptively decide where each dollar goes.”
Singleton did not put a price tag on her ruling, leaving it instead to the Governor’s Office and state lawmakers to create a viable plan.
In an email earlier this week, Singleton said that once the plaintiffs or the state file a report, she will review it and determine what steps need to be taken.
During the legislation session, advocates for the plaintiffs, who at one point asked for $1 billion in new money, said they did not think the state was doing enough to comply with Singleton’s ruling.
On Wednesday, Rep. Christine Trujillo, D-Albuquerque and a co-sponsor of the HB 5, said she wished “there was a little bit more [money] in certain areas.”
Seidler, who works at a school with plenty of disadvantaged kids, said she agreed. She said Garfield Middle School is struggling with how to afford instructional coaches and worries that despite the extra money, “public schools still will not be adequately funded. This is a great first step, but we’re still struggling. It’s a good beginning, but it is only a beginning.”
The governor also signed HB 589, providing $2 million for “community schools” that partner with nearby service providers to offer wraparound aid such as medical services, clothing, financial help and tutoring for students.
Salazar Elementary School is one such school. Lujan Grisham told the assembly that her older sister, Kimberly, was a special-needs student who attended Salazar in the 1970s. Kimberly later died at the age of 21.