A bill on the governor’s desk that received unanimous support from both chambers of the Legislature would require the state to publish detailed information about education spending — including amounts spent by individual schools to support low-income and special-education students.
“School districts get extra dollars for at-risk services but cannot tell the Legislature how they are spent,” said Sen. Jacob Candelaria, D-Albuquerque, a sponsor of Senate Bill 96.
“If a district is shortchanging at-risk students in their budget, that’s a significant issue,” Candelaria said. “How could we gauge education reform if we don’t know where the money is going?”
If Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed SB 96 into law, the state Public Education Department would be required to create an online portal of school budget information, with costs for bilingual and multicultural programs and funding to support students considered at-risk. The website also would include administrative costs and specific salary and benefit expenses listed by job categories.
The measure, which would require the state to get the website up and running by Dec. 31, 2021, includes a one-time appropriation of $6 million for the project.
Candelaria said he sees the infrastructure required by SB 96 as an important tool in the state’s response to the landmark Yazzie/Martinez education lawsuit, in which a judge ruled in 2018 the state has failed to adequately serve Native American children, English-language learners, special-education students and low-income kids. The new online portal will help track programs that serve those students most in need.
The judge also found the Public Education Department has failed to monitor school districts’ use of funds.
State law already requires public school districts and charter schools to publicly post their annual operating budgets, salary schedules, employee directories, monthly revenues and an inventory of property. The federal Every Student Succeeds Act requires districts to report each school’s yearly spending per student.
But a legislative analysis of SB 96 said the state’s online Sunshine Portal does not include all of that information.
The Public Education Department provides some district budget data, the legislative analysis said, but much of the data is incomplete, likely because of staffing shortages.
Tripp Stelnicki, a spokesman for the governor, said the Sunshine Portal is not an effective data tool. He also said SB 96 would give the Public Education Department the necessary funds for reporting school budget data.
“Not to say that the PED is blameless,” Stelnicki said, “but they have never received an appropriation to extract this data. If the bill is signed into law, this transparency will be a new expectation.”
Tim Hand, deputy secretary of the Public Education Department, said the higher level of transparency provided by SB 96 would create a stronger accountability system for public education in the state.
Candelaria blamed the administration of former Gov. Susana Martinez for failing to abide by the state and federal laws.
“The previous administration was not interested in making this information public,” Candelaria said. “They didn’t fund it, and they didn’t enforce the law.”
State Rep. Rebecca Dow, R-Truth or Consequences, another co-sponsor of SB 96, expressed some frustration about the lack of school spending data made public online.
“As a lawmaker, I don’t know how else to make things happen now that this is a federal law and a state law,” she said. If SB 96 becomes law, she added, “I’m confident we will get the infrastructure in place because we don’t have any other choice.”
In the last two years, the state has increased its spending on public education by nearly 25 percent, largely in response to Yazzie/Martinez v. State of New Mexico. Some critics say the investments still aren’t enough and have pushed lawmakers for steeper increases.
“I fear the state is getting trapped in a death spiral when it comes to the Martinez/Yazzie litigation,” Candelaria said. “Plaintiffs come to the Legislature and say education is being underfunded, but we can’t say exactly where and how they’re underfunded.
“These are public dollars,” he added. “We’re not looking to play games anymore.”
Korina Lopez, a parent and cheerleading coach at Ortiz Middle School, said the new online tool required by SB 96 could help parents and community members offer more informed opinions at school board meetings and other public forums.
“When you’re unfamiliar with how a school budget works, it can be kind of intimidating to make your voice heard at a school board meeting. But if the information is readily available online, that changes everything,” Lopez said.
“This becomes a tool for community members to use and try to make a case for their school. Parents could now specifically cite the need for more funding here or there.”