KUNM

Budget Crisis Hits New Mexico Classrooms

Feb 20, 2017

In January, Governor Susana Martinez signed off on a plan to use $46 million from public schools' cash reserves to fill part of this year’s budget gap.

Education spending in New Mexico still hasn’t recovered from the 2008 recession, and as oil and gas revenues continue to stagnate, schools are bracing for more cuts. 

“Make sure you put your glasses on and be safe, okay?" Burton Fisher calls to students as they enter his auto mechanics shop on a recent Friday. There's more traffic than usual as dozens of eighth graders visit Bernalillo High School to check out their options for next year.

"So in Auto 1, you’re gonna learn fundamentals of how to be safe and how a car works," Fisher explains. To give them a taste of something more advanced, he hands a brave volunteer a chunk of metal and shows him how to use a grinder.

The school offers four different auto classes to the high schoolers. “They can actually be certified by the time they leave high school with an automotive certificate of completion,” said Fisher. 

In a recent survey, about 40 percent of incoming Bernalillo eighth graders said they were “highly interested” in auto mechanics as a career pathway.

Others wanted to pursue welding, agriculture, media arts, or culinary arts, but due to this year's budget cuts, they may not all get their choice. The school may have to cut back its career and technical education teachers to half-time or less.

This mid-year round of budget cuts affects all districts and charter schools that have more than three percent of their budget in cash. Last year the Bernalillo School District had around 11 percent in cash reserves, but Finance Director John Babey says most of that cash is essential to daily operation.

“The absolute minimum that Bernalillo can even function on is 7.59 percent," said Babey. "When we fall below 7.59 we can’t even make our final payrolls in July.” He says this year, it's going to be close. 

Like most public school districts in New Mexico, Bernalillo gets a lot of federal funds to help pay for things like teacher salaries in high-poverty schools and special education.

Those federal dollars flow through the state's Public Education Department, and getting reimbursed can take months. So Bernalillo fronts that money out of its cash reserves.

This is the same pot of money that Governor Martinez last month referred to as a “slush fund.” To Bernalillo Superintendent Allan Tapia, who prides himself on running a fiscally responsible district, that description is offensive.

“I looked it up [in the dictionary] and it says, 'slush fund: a reserve of money used for illicit purposes, especially political bribery.' We do not have a slush fund here. We do not," said Tapia. "Every dollar that we have in this district is to educate children.”

Public education makes up more than a third of New Mexico’s nearly $6 billion budget.

But unlike other states that tie school funding to local property taxes, New Mexico has had a centralized system since the 1970's. The State Equalization Guarantee distributes state funds to districts and charter schools based on enrollment and adjustments for factors like small school size. It’s designed so that kids all across the state can get a similar education.

For administrators like Allan Tapia, the big problem now is not how money gets doled out, but that there’s just not enough to go around.

"Public schools in the state of New Mexico are not being sufficiently funded," says Tapia. "And that is actually in the constitution, which indicates that public schools will be sufficiently funded.”

A 2008 study by the American Institute of Research found New Mexico schools were underfunded at the time by $350 million dollars, about 15 percent across the board. And while state education appropriations have been creeping upward since the great Recession ended, critics say it’s not nearly enough.

Last year a study by nonpartisan advocacy group New Mexico Voices for Children found that when you adjust for inflation, education funding has still not recovered to where it was before it plunged in 2008.

This alleged underfunding has prompted two ongoing lawsuits against PED. One also alleges that PED is not providing enough funding for at-risk student populations. 

Democratic lawmakers have proposed ways to raise revenue specifically for education: tap into the Land Grant Permanent Fund, for one, or let voters decide whether to slightly increase the property tax.

PED did not respond to repeated requests for an interview, but made its position clear in a note criticizing one of those proposals this month. PED wrote to lawmakers: “It is not always about the money but rather how it is spent.” 

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The People, Power and Democracy project examines ethics, transparency and accountability in state government. The project is funded by the Thornburg Foundation and by contributions from KUNM listeners.