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Suit to seek more money for education

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Copyright © 2013 Albuquerque Journal

Information courtesy of Legislative Finance Committee

SANTA FE – The school board in New Mexico’s capital city is moving forward with a plan to sue the state for failing to provide “sufficient” education funding, the latest chapter in an ongoing saga over public school spending.

The Santa Fe Public Schools board last week earmarked $100,000 for the lawsuit – not yet filed – in its budget for the coming year.

“Constitutionally, the state is required to fund education sufficiently. Our position is that hasn’t been happening for years,” said Linda Trujillo, Santa Fe’s school board president.

A closer look:
New Mexico’s recent history of funding public education has been bumpy and reflects recession-driven budget cuts. The dollar amounts shown reflect total state public school support and include solvency adjustments. The figures do not include federal stimulus money:⋄  2013-14 – $2.567 billion⋄  2012-13 – $2.455 billion⋄  2011-12 – $2.366 billion⋄  2010-11 – $2.339 billion

⋄  2009-10 – $2.276 billion

⋄  2008-09 – $2.608 billion

Not only do Santa Fe school board members and district administrators say they are not getting enough money from the state, they claim the state’s 88 other school districts are being shortchanged millions of dollars as well.

Spending for public schools makes up a large chunk – about 43 percent – of total spending in this year’s $5.6 billion state budget and is slated to rise by about $112 million in the coming year. However, general fund spending on K-12 schools will still be less than it was in the 2009 fiscal year, before several years of recession-driven budget cuts.

Most money appropriated by the Legislature for public schools flows through an “equalization” formula, dating to the mid-1970s, that determines how much funding each of the state’s school districts will receive.

Rep. Luciano “Lucky” Varela, D-Santa Fe, the chairman of the Legislative Finance Committee, said the Legislature has tried to adequately fund education in recent years while struggling to balance the state’s budget.

“We’ve tried to protect education as best we could,” Varela told the Journal.

Varela also said he’s hopeful litigation can be avoided through dialogue, noting he would rather see the $100,000 spent on education programs than on legal fees.

Meanwhile, the Santa Fe school board is looking for other parties to join in on the planned legal action against the state, though Trujillo declined to say which other school districts might get involved.

Santa Fe Superintendent Joel Boyd, who brought up the district’s plan at a Friday meeting of state superintendents, said the lawsuit is in its initial phase and could ultimately stretch out over a three-year period.

“It’s going to require more than one district,” Boyd said. “It’s going to require a coalition of partners.”

The Santa Fe school board has already used discretionary funding to pay for preliminary legal advice on the lawsuit, which has been discussed for several months behind closed doors.

“The pie has to grow. We can’t just continue to divide the pie in different ways,” Trujillo said of the board’s argument in favor of increasing education funding.

“There’s no doubt that it takes funds to educate our children. If we want them to be educated properly and we want to compete, then we’re going to have to be committed to doing that.”

Sufficient dollars

New Mexico’s Constitution requires the state provide “free public schools sufficient for the education of, and open to, all the children of school age in the state.”

Santa Fe’s planned lawsuit against the state would focus on whether education funding appropriated by the Legislature meets the definition of “sufficient.”

Similar suits have been filed in other states, and at least some of them have been successful. For instance, a Kentucky court found the state had not adequately funded public education and ordered more funding be allocated.

A recent study conducted by the National Education Association-New Mexico, a state teacher’s union, found a lawsuit arguing insufficient public education funding would likely be viable, Boyd said.

However, Albuquerque Public Schools board president Martin Esquivel said he thinks the education funding argument would be a tough sell in a New Mexico court system that has faced budget cuts of its own in recent years.

“I just think it’s an uphill battle both legally and practically speaking,” Esquivel told the Journal .

The Albuquerque school board considered a similar lawsuit in 2010, but board members ultimately voted in January 2011 not to sue the state. Esquivel abstained in that vote.

While he cautioned against a lawsuit, Esquivel said this week he understands and shares the frustration felt by the Santa Fe school board.

“We are underfunded,” he said. “We aren’t meeting the needs of kids.”

Education funding is one of many New Mexico spending areas that have seen decreases in recent years. State lawmakers also trimmed spending on health care and prisons, while state workers were forced to take unpaid furlough days and funnel more of their salaries into their retirement accounts.

In all, education funding makes up the largest state spending area, as public schools receive nearly three times more state dollars than does Medicaid.

Dwindling source

While New Mexico education funding is set to increase in the coming year, the flow of money from a key source for school spending is slowing, which could put pressure on lawmakers to come up with alternative revenue sources.

That’s because annual distributions from the Land Grant Permanent Fund are in the middle of a scheduled decline, under the terms of a 2003 constitutional amendment that temporarily provided for more money to pay for education reform.

Recent attempts by Democratic lawmakers to extend the current distribution rate – currently at 5.5 percent and set to drop again to 5 percent in 2016 – have been unsuccessful.

In the coming year, the Land Grant Permanent Fund distribution is set to be roughly $529 million, with more than 80 percent of that money going to public schools.

Other legislative efforts to earmark additional money for schools have also failed, including an attempt to divert a larger amount from the state’s permanent fund to pay specifically for early childhood education programs.

Santa Fe school board president Trujillo said the prospect of decreased funding is “frightening.” State-mandated tests and other increased costs are already stretching districts’ budgets, she said.

She also said the lawsuit would not seek to redistribute current education funding, but would instead compel lawmakers to come up with more money for education.

“This is an action that we believe will benefit all children in the state of New Mexico, not just Santa Fe,” said Trujillo, who later added, “We believe as a district the time (to act) is now.”

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