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Some districts can’t afford school safety money that comes with strings attached

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

The Legislature set aside millions of dollars to ramp up school safety, but some school districts in the state can’t afford to accept the money.

That’s because of expensive contingencies placed on the funding.

Districts must pledge a certain percentage of their own budget, called a match, and must pay offsets, money owed to the state from past appropriations, before being awarded school security dollars.

Quemado Schools, a small rural district in Catron County, was one of the districts that couldn’t afford to take on the obligations attached to the state funding.

David Lackey, superintendent of Quemado Schools, told the Journal that if he accepted the awards, his district wouldn’t see any additional funding.

Rather, he explained, the legislative dollars would have gone toward about $110,000 in offsets in Quemado.

“Zero dollars would come into the school district,” Lackey said.

And had they accepted the state money, the district would still have been locked in to spending its own money toward security.

“Ultimately, the match and the offset committed the district to too much money,” Lackey said.

In Quemado, the district must commit to 90 percent of a project, and the state’s share is 10 percent, which is calculated through the state match distribution formula.

While a match and offset are typical requirements to accept public school facility money, some have argued these particular dollars – appropriated for schools to boost safety efforts after a mass school shooting in Parkland, Fla., – shouldn’t have the same contingencies.

In fact, state Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup, sponsor of a Senate bill that set aside $40 million for school safety, previously said money meant to keep kids safe shouldn’t depend on how much individual districts can afford.

Lackey would have used state money to ramp up access control in Quemado – paying for such improvements as secure entryways for the three schools in the district and card-key access to help keep the district’s 156 students safe.

Now, the district will pay for school security upgrades when the money becomes available, which will likely be through mill levy funds.

“We will reprioritize and pay for it as we can,” the superintendent said.

It’s a similar situation in Taos Municipal Schools.

Superintendent Lillian Torrez said the matching fund “became a problem.”

Torrez told the Journal that Taos, which has 10 schools and 3,000 kids, needed about $800,000 to secure school entrances. She said she would have also liked an ID scanner that runs automatic background checks.

“We just wanted to secure our schools to the next level,” she said.

But after the provisions, she said, Taos would have been given only about $48,000 and would have been required to commit more than $700,000 of its own money.

“If I had that money, why would I need the $48,000?” she asked.

It’s been a letdown.

“I think school districts thought they were going to have money for the needs of their schools, to secure their schools, and it was really kind of a disappointment,” she said.

The district spent about six weeks writing the application for the state funding – time, in hindsight, Torrez said she wishes had been spent on applying for different grants, which is the plan moving forward.

Taos will now look for revenue sources that don’t commit the district to such a hefty financial obligation.

“We will find the funding,” she said. “Safety is a priority.”

Like Quemado, Taos’ match would have been 90 percent and the state would have kicked in 10 percent.

Carrizozo Municipal Schools and two Albuquerque charter schools – Albuquerque School of Excellence and Southwest Aeronautics, Mathematics and Science Academy – also forfeited state money set aside for them, according to Jonathan Chamblin, executive director of the New Mexico Public School Facilities Authority.

Chamblin said in general it’s not unheard of for districts to opt out of awards, noting that things come up.

In this case, Chamblin said the districts and schools cited several reasons to the PSFA for having to decline the 2018-2019 state funding, including cost.

“Some of these may not have had their local money in hand at time of the award,” he said.

Late last year, a total of $16 million of state money – which was set aside through state Senate and House bills – was awarded to districts across New Mexico based on school safety need.

With the three districts and two schools giving up their portion, hundreds of thousands in unused money was left over.

Albuquerque Public Schools and Questa Independent School District will be the new recipients, Chamblin said, explaining that they were next in line, based on demand.

APS will receive $709,075 and Questa will get $5,503, according to Chamblin.

APS capital master plan executive director Kizito Wijenje told the Board of Education at a recent meeting that the district has the capacity to take on the matching requirement for this money, which is a 45 percent contribution from APS.

In all, APS was given more than $4.5 million in net state money for the 2018-2019 School Security Program, according to PSFA documents.

The additional money comes after APS’ mill levy, bond election failed, which would have generated about $20 million for school security. The district had said its security plan will take longer following the loss, but the extra legislative money will be a boost.

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