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Governor hopes to avoid court oversight of schools

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham will not appeal a landmark court ruling on New Mexico education spending, but she said her administration will “litigate aggressively” in the coming months in an attempt to avoid long-term court oversight of the state’s public schools.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham

Lujan Grisham, a Democrat who took office in January, faced a Monday deadline to decide whether to appeal a state judge’s ruling last summer that the state was not meeting its constitutional requirement to provide an adequate education to all students.

She said Monday that she agrees with the spirit of that ruling but that her administration will mount a vigorous legal defense.

“We will litigate aggressively each finding and each fact,” Lujan Grisham said during a meeting with Journal editors and reporters. “I am not inclined to a consent decree – I think that would be problematic in any number of ways.”

Thomas A. Saenz, president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which represented the Martinez plaintiffs, said the state “earned court intervention through many years of neglect.”

“While that neglect may have occurred under different leadership, this lawsuit is not about current state leadership, but about fulfilling the state’s guarantees to future leaders of the state who are currently in public school,” Saenz said told the Journal in an email. “The judicial system maintains an obligation to address and remedy any situation that would perpetuate a system that fails to satisfy New Mexico state constitutional standards.”

New Mexico has been embroiled in several long-running and expensive class-action lawsuits, including litigation dealing with the way it provides services to people with developmental disabilities and how it handles applications for food assistance benefits.

Lujan Grisham said she wants to avoid a similar scenario in the public school litigation, adding that allowing the courts to have supervision over New Mexico schools would encroach into the Legislature’s authority to appropriate state dollars and potentially be harmful to taxpayers.

“I don’t think that’s prudent for the state of New Mexico,” she said.

The court case played a central role during the just-ended 60-day legislative session, as lawmakers approved a slew of bills to address the deficiencies highlighted by District Judge Sarah Singleton in her ruling.

That includes a $7 billion budget bill passed by lawmakers that is awaiting final approval from Lujan Grisham, which would increase state spending on public schools by roughly $447 million – or 16 percent – over current levels.

Those additional dollars would be used to give a 6 percent pay raise to teachers and school administrators, extend the school year and give more money through the state’s funding formula to school districts with a large number of low-income students.

Legislators say that spending infusion, along with other bills, could bring the state into compliance with the court ruling.

Gail Evans, lead counsel for the Yazzie plaintiffs, said that although she is pleased the governor won’t appeal, she’s not pleased with the outcome of the legislative session, saying the public education system is still not getting necessary resources.

“We are terribly disappointed … and it shows our children still will not get what they need,” she told the Journal on Monday. “We, too, intend to show the court just how much the Legislature did not meet the needs of our students.”

The lawsuit has a yearslong history, born from two separate but similar cases that were eventually merged.

What came to be known as the Yazzie-Martinez lawsuit was filed by the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund in 2014, arguing the state has been breaking its constitutional obligation to provide a sufficient education to all children.

A bench trial in 2017, which lasted several months, resulted in over 130 depositions taken and in excess of a million pages of documents exchanged. Closing arguments wrapped up in early 2018, and the court entered its decisions in July, saying the state did violate the constitutional rights of students, especially at-risk students.

Singleton had previously set an April 15 deadline for lawmakers and the governor to come up with a plan.

Lujan Grisham also suggested the administration of her predecessor, former Gov. Susana Martinez, had not mounted a strong enough defense in the case. The Martinez administration had declared its intent to appeal the ruling before Martinez left office at the end of this year.

The new governor, who said on the campaign trail that she would not appeal the ruling, said her administration will file motions in the case and could ask the judge to vacate parts of her decision.

“We think we can prevail in some of the positions we take,” Lujan Grisham said.

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