School districts have been grappling this week with how to implement salary increases that were in the state budget Gov. Susana Martinez signed earlier this year.
Included in the budget was a 2.5 percent pay bump for teachers and an increase in minimum starting teacher pay from $34,000 to $36,000 per year, beginning in the fall.
But districts have been debating on how to interpret the salary legislation.
Albuquerque Public Schools’ budget committee presented two interpretations to its Board of Education this week.
“There are two things that are out there on the table that we are waiting for a ruling on,” APS Chief Financial Officer Tami Coleman said.
Option one: One reading of the legislation would result in increasing salaries by 2.5 percent across the board. Then, if there are incomes that don’t reach the $36,000 minimum, their salaries would be bumped up.
Option two: Salaries would be brought up to $36,000 first, then the 2.5 percent increase would be implemented.
“What’s right for employees is to tier first and then raise,” board member Barbara Petersen said at the meeting.
Preliminary estimates showed that would cost APS in excess of $3 million more than option one.
APS spokeswoman Monica Armenta said it’s “difficult” and “dangerous” to talk about the budget so early in the process. But she anticipates that APS will move forward with option two.
“This is a fluid process that goes through many iterations before (being) finalized,” she wrote in an email to the Journal, declining to answer further questions.
But APS isn’t alone.
Santa Fe Public Schools Superintendent Veronica Garcia said she is also working with her team to interpret how to move forward.
“Ultimately, districts are going to be in a very tricky position,” Garcia said.
Garcia is hopeful that the next few weeks will bring clarity and ensure that there aren’t any legal challenges, so “we won’t have to go back to the drawing board (for our budget).”
Garcia said a meeting with other superintendents reflected that confusion was statewide.
“Superintendents asked for a guidance document to please come out from the PED,” she said, which she is expecting by next week.
Garcia echoed APS, saying the budget process is still in its early stages and that’s why things are so tentative.
State Sen. Mimi Stewart, who sponsored the bill that increased teachers’ minimum salaries, said she knows there’s confusion among the districts, which she thinks stemmed from a lack of explanation from PED.
“The PED’s message to the field has been consistent that districts and charters are responsible for adhering to the new statutory language,” PED responded via statement.
And the state agency added that the department plans to send out additional guidance for districts that are still confused.
Stewart said the legislative intent was to give each teacher more money through two separate routes:
• Teachers moving up in pay levels or just starting out, will get more money through the minimum salary tier increases.
• Teachers who don’t benefit from the minimum salary increases would then get more money through the 2.5 percent raises.
“How we figured the increase was, first, they impose the tier system … and on top of that impose the 2.5 percent,” she said.
According to Stewart, money was set aside for both routes, and will be included in district funding received through the state funding formula.
The budget included $115 million of additional public education funding for fiscal year 2019, the majority of which is going to schools’ funding, according to PED.