A request for funding for the public education overhaul promised by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham is coming in short of what teachers, superintendents and legislators say New Mexico’s schools need.
The state Public Education Department says it will ask for a 5 percent budget increase — about $170 million more — for fiscal year 2021. That would include a 4 percent increase for teacher and staff pay, as wells as a 20 percent hike in funding divvied among districts through the state’s per-student formula to improve programs for at-risk kids.
In comparison, the department received an additional $480 million for the current fiscal year — an increase of 17 percent over funds allocated in fiscal year 2019 — in response to Yazzie/Martinez v. State of New Mexico, a landmark education lawsuit. In that suit, a state judge ruled in 2018 that New Mexico was violating the constitutional rights of several groups of at-risk students: those from low-income families, special-education students, English-language learners and Native Americans.
Gail Evans of the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, the lead attorney for the Yazzie group of plaintiffs, said the request for a much smaller increase in 2020-21 “is really a pathetic response to a strong, clear constitutional mandate.”
“If this is what PED is asking for, then we will continue to fail our students,” Evans said.
State Sen. Mimi Stewart, an Albuquerque Democrat who serves as vice chairwoman of the Legislative Education Study Committee, said teachers and schools deserve a bigger raise.
“I want us to increase the budget by more than this,” she said. “Five percent overall is too low, and we need to pay teachers more. I think the [Legislative Education Study Committee] is looking at suggesting higher amounts than this.
“My only surprise is the at-risk funding,” Stewart added. “We increased that last session, but we know districts spent most of that money on salaries.”
State Rep. G. Andrés Romero, D-Bernalillo, chairman of the House Education Committee, agreed the Legislature and governor must find ways to cover both raises and programs for underserved students.
“It can’t be either/or,” he said. “We need to increase teacher salaries, and we need more money for new programs that we know work for our students.”
In the 2019 legislative session, lawmakers and the governor increased base-level salaries for teachers and allocated funding for 6 percent pay raises for all school employees except superintendents. The starting pay for Tier 1 teachers was raised to $40,000 from $36,000, while Tier 2 teachers saw an increase to $50,000 from $44,000 and Tier 3 teacher starting pay was increased to $60,000 from $54,000.
But many public school districts and charter schools have told the Public Education Department and lawmakers the mandatory pay hikes cost more this year than they received from the state to cover raises and benefits, and they have been forced to spend the majority of other new funding on salary increases. They were left with little to address the needs of at-risk students.
The Governor’s Office defended the Public Education Department’s request for 4 percent salary increases as a another step in the right direction.
“While a budget request is just that — a preliminary request — PED has proposed a reasonable and appropriate salary increase as we continue to move forward in paying New Mexico’s outstanding and hardworking educators a deserved fair wage,” said Nora Sackett, a spokeswoman for the governor. “The governor is committed to making fiscally responsible and forward-thinking funding decisions for the state.”
Sackett said she could not speculate on the governor’s overall budget recommendation, which will be released in January, before the state’s revenue projections are finalized.
Mary Parr Sanchez, president of the National Education Association-New Mexico and a training specialist with Las Cruces Public Schools, said she fears a 4 percent salary increase would signal a halt in momentum.
“With anything less than another substantial increase in total compensation for teachers and other school employees, the dire shortages of teachers will continue,” Parr Sanchez said. “A small increase this year signals that last year was a one-and-done, and things are back to the less than sufficient business-as-usual approach.”
School leaders also say they’re worried most new funding for the next school year will to go toward salaries and benefits rather than new staff and programs required to address the needs of at-risk students under the Yazzie/Martinez ruling.
“If they’re asking us to give 4 percent raises, which we should because our teachers deserve more, are they also going to include funding for benefits? Because that’s what has us all in this mess,” said Susan Lumley, principal of the Academy for Technology and the Classics, a charter school in the Santa Fe district.
German Martinez, Santa Fe Public Schools’ chief financial officer, said changes to the state’s per-student funding formula provided the district with an additional $7.1 million for this school year, and nearly all of it went to salary and benefit increases.
Rio Rancho Superintendent Sue Cleveland described a similar situation in an affidavit filed in the Yazzie/Martinez case: Mandated pay raises and increases in other costs, such as utilities and benefits, consumed all of her district’s $14.2 million increase in funding from the state’s per-student formula, preventing her from hiring additional nurses, counselors and social workers, she said.
Santa Fe Superintendent Veronica García said in her State of the Schools address Wednesday the state should raise base-level teacher salaries by an additional $5,000 for the next school year to help draw more teachers to districts struggling with educator shortages.
“We would like to see more aggressive salary increases so we don’t have this shortage of teachers,” García said.
“While this all seems like a move in the right direction,” she added, “we really need to know the long-term plan. What’s the end game for complying with Yazzie/Martinez?”
Under the Public Education Department’s budget request, she said, Santa Fe Public Schools would receive about $1.5 million for at-risk student initiatives, an increase of only about $500,000 from the current year.
Deputy Public Education Secretary Tim Hand said the department has heard concerns about appropriating enough money for raises and has been working with the Department of Finance and Administration, legislators and local school districts “to ensure that the amount appropriated for salaries is sufficient to cover the mandated raise.”