The Public Education Department and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham are asking lawmakers to raise school staffers’ pay by 7 percent across the board and increase teacher salary minimums for next year as the state grapples with more than 1,000 public school teaching vacancies.
It’s part of the department’s $3.85 billion budget request to lawmakers Tuesday. The request amounts to a 13 percent increase from last year’s appropriations, and some educators and lawmakers have voiced concerns about it as January’s regular legislative session nears.
If lawmakers appropriate the $280.5 million needed to both raise wages for school staff — administrators included — and increase teacher salary minimums to $50,000, $60,000 and $70,000 annually through the state’s three-tiered licensure system, New Mexico could better compete with surrounding states, said Public Education Secretary-designate Kurt Steinhaus.
The current minimums range from roughly $40,000 to $60,000, based on experience, and the 7 percent wage increase would only affect teachers who didn’t already receive the bump from the tier increases.
Increased oil and gas revenues in the state this year could make salary and wage increases that much more feasible, Steinhaus said in an interview Wednesday.
National Education Association Santa Fe President Grace Mayer said she wasn’t so excited and is concerned the proposal doesn’t address staff retention issues in different districts.
“Well, that helps for recruitment, but what about retention?” she asked. “Everybody thinks 7 percent, that seems reasonable, but in Santa Fe it’s not even going to make a dent in our problems.”
Santa Fe Public Schools has 50 teacher vacancies, said Superintendent Hilario “Larry” Chavez.
Last year, the state’s public employees saw a 1.5 percent raise, and Mayer expressed doubt that 7 percent would be enough for a district like the one in Santa Fe, where the cost of living is rising fast.
A resolution recently passed by the school board, city councilors and as of this week, county commissioners called for higher wages for teachers, and the Santa Fe district listed a 10 percent school staff pay raise as a legislative priority.
Chavez still praised the 7 percent request and the tiered increases in an interview Wednesday as a way to “get a teacher in front of every single student.”
Steinhaus said Wednesday that 7 percent was “sustainable,” and any increase beyond that would be in lawmakers’ hands.
The two initiatives make up the largest chunk of the Public Education Department’s most recent budget request increases, and Steinhaus said they’re also the most important. The department is also seeking millions for teacher development and recruitment.
The budget request, announced Wednesday, is separate from another proposal from the Public Education Department regarding its operational budget. That request includes a $6 million boost in part to help make permanent staffing positions for education initiatives like the Bilingual Multicultural Act in an effort to reduce department turnover.
Lawmakers who will ultimately approve the state’s budget said they support the pay raise for teachers requested by the department. But, some said, they also want salaries increased for all state employees.
“I definitely think it’s doable and it’s long overdue,” said Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe. “We should take a look at a similar rate for state employees. We’ve got recurring dollars and for too many years these absolutely critical workers have done way more than their job descriptions.”
Sen Craig Brandt, R-Rio Rancho, whose wife is an educator, said he thinks “we’re going to have to raise the pay for everyone in government to remain competitive. We’re seeing that in all levels of every state department. They can’t hire people because everyone’s pay has gone up except in government — at least this year.”
He said there “should be money” to do that in January’s regular legislative session.
Rep. Patty Lundstrom, D-Gallup, the chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee, said the governor’s proposed raise for teachers is similar to a Legislative Finance Committee proposal. She too said she’d like to see “all public employees get better salaries because we’re having a lot of trouble getting people to go back to work or even finding people.”
But, she said, “I don’t know if I agree with the idea of increasing teacher tiers.”
Third/fourth grade Dixon Elementary School teacher Samantha Waidler was excited to hear about the department’s request as teachers work to keep up with new initiatives set forth by the state while dealing with the pandemic.
“I think the big thing that’s lacking is respect for educators as professionals,” Waidler said. “I think that a pay raise is definitely an avenue to gain that respect; that’s really important.”
But Waidler, who has a level-three license and recently spoke to the Legislative Education Study Committee about educator working conditions, said an overall lack of teacher autonomy and upward mobility in the career remain an issue.
When asked if an increase to teacher salary minimums would help her stay in the teaching field, Waidler was unsure.
She added, “In fact, it might be a little too late for me.”