Education cuts: shave top-heavy administration, or lay off school nurses?

Jan 20, 2011

Santa Fe, NM – Governor Susana Martinez has called for a one point five percent cut to education in New Mexico. She has said she wants the cut to impact only the administration in school districts around the state. But some education advocates, and some state lawmakers, are expressing their concern that the impact of the cuts would reach into the classrooms of smaller districts. KUNM's Jim Williams reports.

Williams: The cuts would have to be taken from what's known as the "school funding formula". The formula guides how money is distributed to the state's school districts. But the school districts are the ones with the power to make actual cuts in their budgets, so how those cuts would be implemented is up in the air. Martinez hasn't yet proposed specific language on how the cuts should be made.

Ortiz y Pino: It's, I think, a classic example of how something that sounds so good on the campaign trail when you try to convert it into policy, starts becoming much more difficult to accomplish.

Williams: That's Albuquerque Democratic Senator Gerald Ortiz y Pino. He says small school districts are going to have a hard time cutting 1 point 5 percent from their budgets.

Ortiz y Pino: I don't know, I mean we don't have any control over them. We can't tell them you have to cut these people and not these. And so if you have school nurses and you have educational diagnosticians, and you have school psychologists and social workers, all working for the kids to try to help them learn, do you consider them classroom personnel or are they the other kind of people that are gonna get cut?

Williams: Advocacy groups are speaking out on the issue, as well. "Better Choices New Mexico", a coalition of about thirty-four organizations, has begun a campaign called "10 Ways in 10 Days", suggestions for the legislature and governor to "take a balanced approach to addressing the state's revenue shortfall". They say education cuts will lead to layoffs of school nurses, educational assistants, and the social workers Ortiz y Pino talked about. Maggie Nechvatal is a school nurse at Chelwood Elementary in Albuquerque's northeast heights. The coalition has her speaking out on the issue. She says administrative cuts will mean more work for many, and changes in job responsibilities for others.

Nechvatel: I think we're all worried that it's gonna affect us. And you try not to have it impact your job right now, cause tomorrow's another day that I've got a bunch of kids that are gonna need me. I don't know, I don't know how I would have five or six schools. I don't know how that would work. You know, do we ask our teachers to provide medical care to our students? Is that safe? I don't know.

Williams: As far as Governor Martinez is concerned, education administration is much too top-heavy in New Mexico. Here she is in her State of the State speech on Tuesday.

Martinez: New Mexicans are not fooled when bureaucrats, whose salaries are many times that of the average teacher, claim the only place to cut is from the classroom. They're not fooled when a school district spends hundreds of thousands of dollars on PR staff, and then claims it has nowhere to cut but the classroom.

Williams: She did not address the potential small school district problem, and a spokesman for Martinez didn't respond to e-mails from KUNM asking about it on Thursday. Republican state lawmakers are pretty much in agreement, though, that education in New Mexico needs to be reformed, and the 1 point 5 percent administrative cut is just a small piece of what needs to happen.

Taylor: I'm tired of hearing groups saying "you can't cut, you can't cut, you can't cut, but give us another half billion dollars so we can keep doing what we're doing", and it's not working in New Mexico.

Williams: Thomas Taylor, a Republican Representative from Farmington, and the House minority leader, thinks part of the problem is the state's education structure isn't fair to small districts. But he also thinks schools are trying to do too much for students.

Taylor: I mean, in many ways, our education system has become a human services department. You know, we have multitudes of programs that really should be the responsibility of a different agency, you know? Providing breakfasts and meals and social services and all those things which are needed, but when you have them in the education system, they're done at the expense of the mainstream of education, of the idea of educating kids.

Williams: Education reform will be at the top of many Republicans', and some Democrats', agenda this session. It's not clear, though, whether there will be enough votes to enact significant reform, or change the school funding formula. Especially since a majority of lawmakers still seem to want more money for education in the formula. Albuquerque Democratic Representative Rick Miera chairs the House Education Committee. He says a long-term plan needs to be put in place, and money needs to be borrowed from the state's permanent fund to avoid more cuts in the short term.

Miera: People thinking "is this the first year we're talking about cuts?" We've been cutting, cutting for years now, years, plural. And to be able to say, well "cut some more", we're gonna say "okay, we've already cut, you tell us where else you want us to cut, it's not a matter of cut here for the first time, give us a new budget, it's more a matter of "where else do you want us to cut?" And that is disastrous for large and small school districts nationwide, but specifically New Mexico.

Williams: Senator Gerald Ortiz y Pino says there will be a fight between those who want to cut education and those who want to end tax breaks to corporations in order to raise revenues. He echoes Miera's words about cuts that have already been made.

Ortiz y Pino: And at some point you stop cutting through superfluous fat, and you start cutting into vital organs. And that's what we're doing now. So I think we don't need to cut, we certainly don't need to cut education. And we have ways readily at hand, without raising taxes, I just mean closing loopholes for the special breaks that have been given to people, closing those up we would have plenty of revenue.

Williams: Representative Miera says the education funding proposals will likely begin to be heard in his committee on Monday.