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School districts can count on state support, Skandera says

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The New Mexico Public Education Department has bumped up per-pupil spending by 1.8 percent – a $20 million increase for districts statewide that will not be changed during the Legislature’s special session, according to Education Secretary Hanna Skandera.

PED Secretary Hanna Skandera

PED Secretary Hanna Skandera

Skandera announced the new unit value in April, and last week, she told the Journal that districts can depend on the money.

“The unit value is set separate from special session,” she said. “It is set the same way every year, so when it goes up, it is based on external factors. It is set and that $20 million won’t go away regardless of what happens during the special session.”

PED determines the unit value, which provides funding based on a district’s total enrollment and the composition of the student body. For instance, English Language Learners and special education students receive more money to cover additional school supports.

The unit value is a major component of the state equalization guarantee – the amount of money New Mexico “guarantees” will be provided to districts to defray program costs.

The state equalization guarantee itself is set by the Legislature through an annual appropriation in the budget bill. In April, Gov. Susana Martinez signed a General Appropriations Act that includes $2.49 billion for schools – a 0.5 percent increase from the current year’s operating budget.

While Skandera has vowed that the unit value is safe, the state’s equalization guarantee funding was reduced by $37.8 million during the previous special session, held in October 2016.

Albuquerque Public Schools administrators have said they are worried about what might happen this time.

In early April, APS administrators projected that the Legislature would cut K-12 education by 2 percent during the special session to help cover the higher education budget.

The governor line-item vetoed all funding for higher education and the legislative branch, setting the stage for the special session, which begins today.

A few weeks ago, APS Chief Financial Officer Tami Coleman told the board of education that the 2 percent public education cut no longer looked likely.

On Monday, the APS board signed off on a budget that factors in the 1.8 percent equalization guarantee increase. It lists the district’s equalization funding at $617.7 million.

The district projects an enrollment decline combined with higher costs, adding up to a $13 million loss that will be covered largely by tapping cash reserves and reorganizing central office departments.

Skandera was skeptical about the district’s decision to initially budget for a 2 percent cut. “I don’t know why they did that,” she said.

Paul Aguilar, New Mexico Education Department Deputy Secretary for Finance and Operations, told the Journal that APS should have budgeted from the signed appropriations bill rather than guessing at the 2 percent cut.

The district’s 2 percent budget cut scenario listed a number of unpopular options, including the end of all competitive middle school sports. Parents and students fought to save middle school sports, and the proposal was taken off the table.

On Monday, Coleman said initial planning for the 2 percent cut was reasonable based on the information available in April.

“We don’t have a balanced budget for the state, so we still have tons of unknowns,” she said.

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