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Report criticizes NM school district spending

Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal

Many New Mexico school districts are spending too much on administration and too little in the classroom, according to a local think tank that is seeking legislation to address the issue.

Think New Mexico released a report today, noting that only 57 cents of every dollar spent on education goes to instruction statewide. The rest pays for administrative costs such as school boards, superintendents, human resources, public relations, purchasing, printing and other expenses that don’t directly impact students.

The report was made available to the Journal last week with the condition that no outside interviews be conducted until after its formal release today.

Some districts like Gadsden and Texico are allocating more to the classroom, but others are top heavy and not as efficient, according to the report.

“New Mexico has limited resources, and we must make sure that the dollars we are currently appropriating for education are spent as effectively as possible,” the report states. “At the same time, if we enact reform measures that maximize the proportion of our education budget that reaches the classroom, then every additional dollar New Mexico appropriates for our schools will make a much bigger difference for students.”

New Mexico ranked 43rd in the nation for the proportion of educational money spent on instruction in 2014, the most recent data available, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

But on another measure, the state comes in 36th for overall education spending, allocating $9,403 per student – up from 44th place and $3,929 per student in 1993.

If New Mexico reduced its administrative spending to match the national average, nearly $55 million could be reallocated to the classroom, the report states.

Think New Mexico, a nonpartisan think tank based in Santa Fe, recommends “enforceable minimum percentages for classroom spending” set by the governor and Legislature to ensure that more money is directly impacting instruction.

Fred Nathan, Think New Mexico founder and executive director, said he will approach lawmakers about introducing legislation during the upcoming session.

The New Mexico Public Education Department has already set targets for classroom spending – 65 percent of the budget for districts with fewer than 750 students and 75 percent for larger districts – but there are no consequences for missing the mark.

Currently, 50 of New Mexico’s 89 school districts do not meet the goal.

‘Sliding scale’

Think New Mexico’s proposal calls for a “sliding scale” based on total enrollment to set the minimum percentages, rather than two tiers. For instance, districts with more than 25,000 students would all have to meet a certain target for classroom spending, followed by districts with 7,501 to 25,000 students and so on.

Charter schools would be held to the same standard.

PED already must approve district budgets. Under Think New Mexico’s plan, PED would sign off on two budgets, one for classroom spending and one for administration, ensuring that districts meet the goal.

Nathan said he believes the concept would have strong support in the Legislature.

“It appears that next year’s budget will be flat, and this provides an innovative way for the Legislature and the governor to get more dollars to the classroom in a flat budget year,” he said.

Think New Mexico’s report cites studies indicating that money alone is not linked to higher test scores or graduation rates – Connecticut spends much more per student than Utah, but the two states have similar outcomes.

Targeting dollars to the classroom does correlate to better student achievement, however, according to 2003 research from the Southwest Educational Development Laboratory.

“The study found that, in general, high-performing school districts spend a larger percentage of their budgets on instruction and a lower percentage on general administration than lower-performing districts, and they also tend to employ smaller numbers of administrative staff,” the Think New Mexico report states.

Think New Mexico also notes that districts are spending roughly 15,000 staff hours to generate reports for the state and federal governments. If PED took over the responsibility of producing these reports, the costs would be cut by two-thirds, saving $46.5 million, according to the report.

Model district

Think New Mexico highlights Texico – a district of 560 students east of Clovis – as a model for the state’s public schools.

In 2016, Texico had a 95 percent graduation rate, the best performance in New Mexico and well above the national average of 83 percent.

The district was also ranked seventh in the state for reading and ninth for math in 2017.

At the same time, median family income in the district is $34,241, below the $44,963 state average, and the poverty rate is around 30 percent. The area has a large number of children learning English as a second language.

“The success of Texico demonstrates that every school district in New Mexico can perform at a high academic level,” the report states.

Texico’s central administrative office has only three employees: the superintendent, a business manager and a secretary.

The district ranked 18th in New Mexico for the overall percentage of the budget going to the classroom, which Nathan noted was impressive, because the small district doesn’t have economies of scale.

Hobbs’ school district came in first, followed by Farmington, Santa Fe and Albuquerque.

Albuquerque Public Schools – the state’s largest district with more than 85,000 students – could save $29 million if it were as efficient as Hobbs.

Think New Mexico’s report praised APS Superintendent Raquel Reedy for dividing the district into four quadrants, known as Learning Zones, to create more localized management.

“The research indicates that beyond a certain size, large districts actually begin to experience diseconomies of scale,” the report states.

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