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Education Panel OKs $2.5 Billion Budget

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SANTA FE – Republican Gov. Susana Martinez’s plans for improving public schools are running into trouble early in the Legislature as a House committee endorsed an education budget Monday that provided no money for several administration initiatives.

The House Education Committee’s spending recommendations represent an early political test of whether the Martinez administration can persuade the Democratic-controlled Legislature to accept its educational policies, including salary bonuses to help attract highly rated teachers to work in struggling schools.

The committee unanimously approved a proposed budget that will allocate nearly $2.5 billion next year for school operations, the Public Education Department and other educational programs such as prekindergarten. That’s an increase of $93 million or 3.9 percent.

The increase on public education is very similar to the $97 million in higher spending the governor had recommended to the Legislature, but the committee and the administration differ significantly in their approaches to how money for educational initiatives should be handled.

The governor proposed earmarking money for various programs, leaving it to the state to decide how to distribute the funding.

However, the committee focused on funneling more state aid through a system that allows local schools to largely determine how to spend the taxpayer money.

“We prefer targeted dollars on specific, proven reforms, as opposed to putting more money into the status quo, with less accountability,” Larry Behrens, a spokesman for the Education Department, said in a statement.

The governor had requested about $12 million to help ensure children can read adequately in early grades, but the committee scaled it back to $7.5 million and will distribute the money through the state’s school funding formula.

The committee chairman, Rep. Rick Miera, said the proposed budget preserved local decision-making for school districts.

“It’s a well-rounded bill with regards to meeting the needs that the governor thought were important as well as the local districts,” Miera said.

The spending recommendations go to another House committee, which is developing a larger budget package for financing state government as well as education next year.

The Education Committee turned down several of the governor’s budget requests, including $5.5 million to help struggling schools and reward those that get high grades under a new system for rating schools. The governor also didn’t get $2.5 million requested for a teacher evaluation system and merit pay for teachers, or $2.5 million for more frequent testing of student performance.

Of the committee’s proposed $93 million spending increase, about $27 million will boost the take-home pay of teachers and other school workers because it covers higher pension contributions by governmental employers while allowing workers to put in less into their retirement programs.

A budget-balancing law last year lowered the government’s payroll contributions by 1.75 percent for public employee pensions and forced workers to offset that. However, the law provided for the pension swap to end next year if New Mexico’s finances improved by a certain amount.

Tom Sullivan, interim superintendent of the Roy school district, said the proposed budget was “certainly better than what we’ve seen in the last several years” for public education but it “doesn’t come anywhere near getting us back to whole from the cuts of the previous three years.”
— This article appeared on page A4 of the Albuquerque Journal

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