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Dems reject governor’s school spending plan

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SANTA FE – Democrats on the House Appropriations and Finance Committee on Monday bucked a request from Gov. Susana Martinez to focus most new educational spending on so-called “below-the-line” school programs directed by her Public Education Department.

The committee plan represented the philosophical divide between the Republican administration and many Democrats and educators over state-versus-local-district control of new dollars available for public schools. The disagreement is likely to play out over the rest of the 30-day legislative session, which ends Feb. 20.

The House committee, in a party-line, 10-8 vote, recommended an education spending plan that would allocate $23 million of its proposed $150 million in new education money to PED-managed programs. The remainder of the new money would go to local districts through the state’s public school funding formula, known as “above-the-line” spending, distributed to local districts.

The committee’s plan also includes an across-the-board 3 percent raise for all public school employees.

Martinez, in her budget recommendation, requested that $55 million of her proposed $100 million in new education spending go toward PED-controlled, below-the-line programs, with guaranteed pay raises only for entry-level teachers.

PED Secretary-designate Hanna Skandera called the committee’s plan unacceptable.

“There’s too much money going above the line that’s not accountable,” Skandera said.

Programs budgeted above the line “are not guaranteed to go to that purpose. At the end of the day, they’re guaranteed to go to school districts to spend how they choose,” Skandera said.

Republicans said that, in order to support the proposal, they would like to see the below-the-line dollar amount double in the committee plan.

Republicans asked that an additional $25 million now budgeted for districts be shifted to below-the-line PED-designed initiatives. The money would be dedicated to programs such as purchase of new school books, extended school days for struggling students and websites that allow parents to check up on their child’s schoolwork.

Committee Democrats said the Republican proposal was unreasonable. They say that money is best left to the districts to decide how it’s utilized.

“This is the struggle between the administration and the school districts,” said HAFC Deputy Chairman Rep. Luciano “Lucky” Varela, D-Santa Fe. “… To almost double that (below-the-line spending), I don’t think we can agree on that.”

Rather than taking additional time on Monday to discuss possible amendments, Democrats recommended the schools spending proposal advance while Republicans draft a specific proposal for changes they’d like to see made in the education spending plan. The committee is expected to vote on its full budget recommendation later this week.

Rep. Larry Larrañaga, R-Albuquerque, said he’s still optimistic a compromise can be struck with Democrats on education spending.

“We’ll keep working and hoping that there’s compromise,” Larrañaga said. “They didn’t shut the door on us. They didn’t agree to those compromises today, but we’re hopeful they’re going to continue to look at them, and so will we.”

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