More than 1,500 Santa Fe teachers, parents and students gathered at the state Capitol on Thursday afternoon to make a plea to Gov. Susana Martinez and state legislators for a balanced a budget that doesn’t cripple New Mexico’s public schools.

The well-attended demonstration was a success for Veronica García, superintendent of Santa Fe Public Schools, who had canceled classes for half a day — counting the time as a partial “snow day” — and called for an 11th-hour protest of education funding cuts that the Senate Finance Committee has forecast at 5 percent to 7 percent.

In announcing Thursday’s “snow day of action” just one day earlier, she asked school supporters to show up in force for the 3 p.m. rally. Some school leaders were a little concerned that no one would respond to their call for activism, but people started appearing by 2:30 p.m., chanting “No more cuts” and “Save our schools.”

The event, the brainchild of school board member Steven Carrillo, began with music and live student performances — including a rap number — as well brief speeches by García, school board members, a teacher and two Democratic state senators: Howie Morales of Silver City and Bill Soules of Las Cruces.

Most of the crowd, perhaps as many as 1,000 people, then filed into the Roundhouse and headed up to the governor’s fourth-floor office to deliver postcards asking her to work with state lawmakers on a budget that spares public schools from any more cuts.

“It’s like the beginning of a resistance movement,” said Charles Bowyer, executive director of the National Education Association-New Mexico teachers union, as he watched protesters pack the building’s stairways.

Nearly lost in the crowd were elementary school students Bella Merchant, from El Dorado Community School, and Ruby Reyes Tapia, from Wood Gormley Elementary School. Merchant said she didn’t want to see schools eliminate their arts and music programs to save money. Tapia said she was afraid the district might close some schools.

The girls said they hope the governor listens to them, even though they are “just kids.”

Wood Gormley students even wrote letters to Martinez asking for help, Tapia said.

Martinez was not at the Capitol on Thursday to accept cards and letters from the crowd because she was attending a funeral service in Rehoboth for slain Navajo police Officer Houston James Largo, who was shot early Sunday while responding to a domestic dispute. He died later that day.

García said the demonstration was not a political stunt, as a spokesman for the governor had called the plan earlier this week, but an act of desperation that speaks to the plight of many New Mexico school districts as they brace for cuts to next year’s budget.

For Santa Fe Public Schools, less funding could mean 15 fewer days of instruction, a reduction of 75 to 80 jobs and more students filling each classroom.

Michael Lonergan, Martinez’s spokesman, said in an email Thursday, “We agree with teachers: we need to protect classroom spending. But sadly the Senate continues to sit on its hands and pass meaningless bills like the ‘official state winter holiday song’ about posole and tamales. … They need to pass a budget that doesn’t raise taxes and protects classroom spending and send it up to the governor’s desk.”

Martinez has vowed not to raise taxes, but a proposed measure making its way to her desk would raise revenue through new and higher taxes and fees.

Shortly before the public education rally, the House Taxation and Revenue Committee voted 9-5 to table a bill sponsored by Morales that would have raised $89 million for public schools by increasing the state’s cigarette tax by $1.50 per pack.

“I know she made a promise not to raise taxes,” García said of the governor as she stood just outside Martinez’s office, greeting district supporters, “but it’s OK to change your mind.”

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

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