Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal
It was mid-July when a state judge ruled New Mexico isn’t giving “at risk” students a sufficient education – something ensured to them by the state Constitution. A consolidated lawsuit, filed by the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, argued that the state’s schools are inadequately funded.
In the judge’s landmark decision was a crucial deadline: April 15.
By that date, which is after next year’s legislative session, the state, the Public Education Department and the Legislature have to “take immediate steps” to ensure that New Mexico schools have resources needed for a sufficient education.
Two key legislative committees have been working together on a plan, which is expected to cost in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
On Friday, the New Mexico School Boards Association, or NMSBA, brought together key players of the lawsuit for a panel discussion and asked what their top remedies would be moving forward.
Tom Sullivan, retired Moriarty-Edgewood superintendent, introduced what would become the panel’s consensus: New Mexico needs to increase teacher salaries by substantial margins to help with recruitment and retention woes.
Gail Evans, lead counsel at New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, proposed raising the pay tiers to $45,000, $55,000 and $65,000. In Albuquerque Public Schools, the scale is $36,000, $44,000 and $54,000 currently.
She also included what she called “no brainer stuff.” She said such areas as increasing funding so schools can hire the needed staff and invest in their programs and making sure students have the instructional materials and technology needed to learn can be implemented right away.
The need for teachers and resources to support those teachers was echoed by Santa Fe Public Schools Superintendent Veronica Garcia, who said schools and districts can’t implement changes without the personnel. She highlighted a teacher shortage the state is facing.
Both Garcia, who was a witness for the lawsuit, and Guy Archambeau, president of the Grants Cibola Board of Education, saw the need to invest more in pre-kindergarten and initiatives that increase time in kindergarten through third grade.
Archambeau also emphasized the importance of bringing cultural songs, stories and philosophies into schools.
“When our children read stories about kids in Kansas, it doesn’t connect,” he said.
Ernest Herrera, Mexican American Legal Defense Fund attorney, urged alterations to the funding formula and at-risk index, which puts money toward students such as English Language Learners, students with disabilities and economically disadvantaged students.
“Not just increasing it but also including in it all students who are economically disadvantaged and all those who qualify for free and reduced lunch,” he told the NMSBA crowd.
Each panelist was asked to give three top priorities for fixing public education, and most either provided more than that or suggested priorities that are multifaceted.
State Sen. Mimi Stewart, an Albuquerque Democrat and chairwoman of the Legislative Education Study Committee, told the crowd the LESC and the Legislative Finance Committee have been working together to draft a plan.
“I can tell you we are going to do everything that everyone talked about,” she said, referencing the panel’s suggestions and saying bigger changes will be implemented over time.
Stewart didn’t share any cost figures, saying the work with the LFC isn’t done yet.
Preliminary estimates, based on pages and pages of proposals from the community and plaintiffs’ attorneys, have ranged anywhere from $350 million to $1 billion.
A final price tag has not been confirmed.