Small public schools and charter schools in more heavily populated areas of New Mexico have been relying in recent years on extra funding from the state that some lawmakers say was never meant for them.
The money, under a more than 40-year-old provision in New Mexico law known as the small school size adjustment, was intended to bolster the budgets of tiny districts in far-flung areas of a large, mostly rural state that divvies its education funding by the number of students enrolled in each school. It was enacted long before publicly funded charter schools — which have been benefited from the provision — were operating.
Over the next five years, many schools will see that money gradually disappear.
The decline, at 20 percent per year, began at the start of 2019-20 under legislation approved during this year’s legislative session. Operators of state-chartered schools in Santa Fe say they must respond to the change by cutting staff or increasing enrollment, which would therefore increase their state funding.
“We don’t need that money to survive, but we need it to thrive,” said Robert Jessen, head learner at state-chartered Monte del Sol Charter School.
“When you’re a charter school, you’re a school of choice,” Jessen said. “We’re in a market. You can’t just be OK. You have to be better. In order to be better, we will have to get bigger.”
Until the last school year, the state’s per-student funding formula provided the additional dollars to elementary and middle schools with fewer than 200 students and high schools with fewer than 400. Starting this year, only schools in districts with fewer than 2,000 students received the full amount of their small school size adjustment.
Those in larger districts are losing the money at a rate of 20 percent per year until it’s gone altogether in 2024-25.
“The small school size adjustment was always intended for rural areas of the state, but it started to be misused” under former Republican Gov. Susana Martinez and former Public Education Secretary Hanna Skandera, said state Sen. Mimi Stewart, an Albuquerque Democrat who co-sponsored Senate Bill 1. The legislation altered the rules for the small school funding and made other changes to New Mexico’s education law.
“The five-year phaseout is designed to right-size our system and bring it back to legislative intent in a reasonable way,” Stewart said.
Between 2009 and 2015, charter schools received 46 percent of all the increases in funding for public education, even though they served only 7 percent of the state’s students, according to data from the Legislative Finance Committee. The hike for such schools drew sharp criticism from public education advocates who complained the state’s struggling traditional public schools needed an infusion of cash.
That finally happened this year when the Legislature and governor increased public education funding by more than half a billion dollars.
Some say that’s still not enough.
In the meantime, charter schools are scrambling to figure out how to address declining funds.
Jessen said Monte del Sol, which has bout 360 students, received $433,149 — or 11 percent of its operating budget — from the small school size adjustment last year, compared to $350,605 this year.
Smaller schools said they were hit worse.
Anne Salzmann, principal of The MASTERS Program, a dual-credit charter high school that serves 265 students in space at Santa Fe Community College, said the adjustment made up around 30 percent of her operating budget last year, compared to just over 22 percent this year. As a result, Salzmann said, the school, which pays the community college around $117,000 per year in rent, did not replace an administrator who resigned and has made cuts in its food budget.
Two other state-chartered schools in Santa Fe — Tierra Encantada Charter School and the New Mexico School for the Arts — have fewer than 300 students and therefore qualified for the additional small school funds. The Academy for Technology and the Classics, chartered through Santa Fe Public Schools, just barely qualified for the funding with an enrollment of 395.
Several other small schools in the local district also are feeling the effects of the funding loss.
The Early College Opportunities High School, Mandela International Magnet School, Acequia Madre Elementary School, Tesuque Elementary School and alternative school Engage Santa Fe received a total of around $2.1 million from the small school size adjustment last year, according to Chief Financial Officer German Martinez. This year, they received $450,000 million less.
Julie Radoslovich, principal at Albuquerque-based South Valley Academy, a charter middle and high school, estimated that under the current state funding formula, small charter schools in large districts, including Santa Fe, will have to nearly double their enrollment to survive.
“The magic number for charter schools is between 650 and 700,” Radoslovich said. “For high schools with the small school size adjustment, the number used to be 250. When you begin to lose the small school funding formula, you have two choices — you decide to cut positions or you have to decide to grow.”
South Valley Academy was aware the small school funding eventually would end, she said, and took steps to end its reliance on the money.
“The small school size adjustment seemed like it was on the chopping block for a while,” she said.
The college prep academy, which opened as a high school for 250 to 300 students in 1999, added a middle school in 2013 and began expanding to its current enrollment of around 650. Radoslovich said the school is able to provide college counselors, social workers and manageable classrooms sizes, which it could not have offered if it had not grown.
Growth doesn’t come easily for state-chartered schools in New Mexico, which can’t raise construction funds for facilities through local bond elections, like public school districts can.
This year, Turquoise Trail Charter School south of Santa Fe, the only charter school within the boundaries of the local school district that is too large to receive the small school size adjustment, added portable classroom buildings in order to accommodate seventh and eighth grade students. The expansion brought its enrollment up to around 800.
“Health care goes up. Heating goes up. Water goes up, so does retirement,” said Turquoise Trail Principal Ray Griffin. “All of these operating costs keep increasing cumulatively at a higher rate than our funding increases from the state.
“It’s pretty simple then,” Griffin added. “The only way to make this up is you grow and get more students and more per-pupil funding without increasing the overhead. It’s not an easy spot to be in.”
Griffin said in March 2018, Turquoise Trail asked the state Public Education Commission — an elected panel that authorizes and oversees charter schools — to raise its enrollment cap from 700 to 840 students.
Commission Chairwoman Patricia Gipson said the panel has not received an influx of applications from charter schools seeking to increase their enrollment caps to make up for lost funds from the small school size adjustment.
Not all schools are able to grow to draw more state funding.
ATC is one of them, said Principal Susan Lumley.
This summer, ATC completed a $6.5 million renovation project using funds from a 2017 voter-approved general obligation bond, made possible because the school is associated with the local school district. The project included a new music classroom, cafeteria, science labs and gymnasium.
“I don’t think we can just add students to survive,” Lumley said. “I just don’t think that’s a sustainable way to deal with your budget. Eventually, you have to add more teachers.
“The real answer,” she said, “is a more sustainable funding formula.”
This story has been amended to reflect the following correction. A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the Early College Opportunities High School, Mandela International Magnet School, Acequia Madre Elementary School and Tesuque Elementary School received a total of around $9 million from the small school size adjustment last year. Those schools, along with alternative school Engage Santa Fe, received a total of around $2.1 million from the small school size adjustment last year, according to Chief Financial Officer German Martinez. A previous version of the story also incorrectly stated the schools received $1.7 million less this year. They received $450,000 million less this year.