In trial over funding, father says New Mexico schools

Roberto Sanchez, left, testifies Tuesday with the aid of an interpreter, Naomi Todd Reyes, during a trial in First District Judge Sarah Singleton’s courtroom. Sanchez is one of many plaintiffs in a lawsuit claiming New Mexico and the state Public Education Department are not investing enough money in public schools and are therefore failing students across the state. Clyde Mueller/The New Mexican

The father of three bilingual students testified Tuesday in a state court that his children are struggling because they have not received tutoring, summer school or any other form of intervention to help keep them on track.

Speaking in Spanish, with a court interpreter translating his remarks, Roberto Sanchez painted a portrait of a state public school system that neglects English-language learners because, as he put it, “There’s more students, less teachers and less attention paid to the students.”

Sanchez, whose children attend Santa Fe public schools, is one of many plaintiffs in a lawsuit claiming New Mexico and the state Public Education Department are not investing enough money in public schools and are therefore failing students across the state.

Under questioning by attorney Alejandra Avila, who represents the plaintiffs, Sanchez testified on the second day of what is planned to be a nine-week bench trial, saying he joined the lawsuit because “I want people to have more opportunities. I want immigrants who don’t speak English to have more opportunities.”

The New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund launched the case in 2014 on behalf of a coalition of parents, students and school districts, including Santa Fe Public Schools. The coalition wants the court to force the state to provide more funds to support New Mexico’s 339,000 public school students, particularly English-language learners, special-education students and those who come from impoverished families.

State First District Judge Sarah Singleton will rule on the lawsuit, which, if successful, could serve as a landmark case for how public education is funded in New Mexico.

The state has allocated $2.7 billion, or roughly 44 percent, of its $6.1 billion general fund budget to public education for the fiscal year that starts July 1. The New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty estimates the state is underfunding education by about $600 million. According to the Legislative Education Study Committee, the trial has so far cost the state more than $1 million.

Sanchez’s testimony spoke to the frustrations many Spanish-speaking immigrant parents feel when trying to navigate a school system that may feel foreign to them, especially if there are not enough bilingual employees on hand to help.

Sanchez said his children’s schools have had no Spanish-speaking interpreters to help explain what’s going on with his sons’ studies.

Defense attorneys for the state chose not to cross-examine Sanchez on Tuesday afternoon, saying they need more time to prepare because he was a last-minute substitute for another parent who was scheduled to testify. Sanchez will return to the stand Thursday for cross-examination.

Though the plaintiffs in the case want the court to hold the entire state accountable for its 89 school districts, Sanchez’s testimony centered on just a few schools in Santa Fe. He said his middle son was failing math in the fifth grade two years ago and continued to struggle in middle school, and that administrators and educators at both Kearny Elementary and Ortiz Middle School did nothing to help him.

Nor did teachers respond to Sanchez’s concerns that they were moving his youngest son out of a dual-language program when the boy felt he needed more time in it, Sanchez said.

He said his son, then in the fifth grade, “didn’t believe he was trained or ready to be in English-language classes.”

Later in his testimony, Sanchez said his youngest son did receive some tutoring in math.

The public school system “isn’t bad, but it could be better,” he said.

School superintendents from several districts, including Lake Arthur and Española, are scheduled to testify Wednesday on behalf of the plaintiffs. Santa Fe Superintendent Veronica García was the first witness in the case Monday, saying the state is failing to prepare its students for colleges and careers.

Contact Robert Nott at 505-986-3021 or rnott@sfnewmexican.com.