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Outgoing PED chief makes budget recommendations

Christopher Ruszkowski

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — More money for at-risk students, educator compensation and continuing merit-pay bonuses for highly-rated teachers.

These are some of the priorities Public Education Department Secretary-designate Christopher Ruszkowski thinks the state should be investing in – contributing to a total of about $430 million in additional recommended investment.

The outgoing PED leader presented his budget proposal to the Legislative Finance Committee – a group of legislators tasked with fiscal analyses and recommendations – earlier this month.

Ruszkowski has but a day left on the job as Democrat Gov.-elect Michelle Lujan Grisham gets ready to take over, bringing with her a new secretary of education. How much consideration his plan will be given amidst the gubernatorial shift is unclear, especially as some of his items would require legislative changes.

For instance, Ruszkowski’s plan includes $80 million more into the at-risk index but that needs legislation.

Still, Ruszkowski says his proposal is based on the needs of the current K-12 system that he learned about visiting each district in the state.

Also in the budget proposal is $120 million for educator compensation with the aim of upping the pay base of teachers to $41,000 annually to spur recruitment in the state. This too would have to go through the Legislature.

The LFC put out a teacher compensation progress report this month that shows the average teacher in New Mexico makes about $11,000 less annually than the national average.

Earlier this year, an increase in minimum starting teacher pay from $34,000 to $36,000 per year was included in the state’s budget.

The finance committee report also says the Legislature should consider giving teachers, who meet benchmark requirements at hard-to-staff schools, more money. In addition to salaries, Ruszkowski suggested setting aside $10 million for merit pay bonuses for teachers who do well on the state’s evaluation system to help with retention – something the state is grappling with currently.

The LFC report did show half of the state’s teachers leave the profession within just five years of graduating, but it also highlighted the need to evaluate the impact of merit pay, saying the effectiveness is unknown.

Ruszkowski’s proposal comes at a time when other education budget proposals are floating around. A judge ruled this summer that New Mexico is violating the constitutional rights of at-risk students by failing to provide them with a sufficient education. The judge is requiring that immediate steps be taken by April. Since then, the plaintiffs’ lawyers in the lawsuit, community members and the Legislative Education Study Committee have been working on plans with consistent suggestions such as altering the at-risk index, upping teachers’ salaries and investing in early childhood education.

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