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Editorial: State lawmakers should fix school safety funding

Sen. George Muñoz tried to do a good thing in January 2018 when he sponsored a bill setting up a $40 million pot of money for New Mexico school districts to use for school safety. The money, early reports said, could be used for card-swipe door entry systems, metal detectors, surveillance cameras and bulletproof windows.

In the aftermath of a December 2017 shooting that left two students dead at Aztec High School, Muñoz’s fellow senators passed his bill unanimously. A few days later state representatives did the same, sending the measure to the governor the same day a gunman took the lives of 17 students and staff at a high school in Parkland, Fla.

Gov. Susana Martinez signed the bill.

It was a good thing. But it had a potentially fatal flaw.

In June, the Public School Capital Outlay Council informed school districts about strings attached to the money. And what strings they were. When districts applied for the funds, they would have to commit to a match from their own budgets – in some cases up to 90 percent of the project funding – and pay back any money owed to the state from old projects.

According to a June 17 article, Muñoz told a Journal reporter he never intended to require districts to chip in a match in order to qualify for the funds. But there it was: the $40 million had to follow the rules of the Public School Capital Outlay Council. Some superintendents said they weren’t sure they would bother applying.

That was 10 months ago.

Journal writer Shelby Perea reported March 31 that, as foreseen, several school districts are foregoing the fund altogether. They can’t afford to take the money that’s been set aside – specifically for them.

And the frustrating thing is, state lawmakers can’t say they didn’t see it coming.

Sen. Mimi Stewart, a member of the council’s oversight task force, told the Journal legislators can’t simply re-jigger Muñoz’s bill in 2020 to get rid of the match and offset requirements; the state’s hands are bound by conditions set by the still-ongoing Zuni lawsuit, which requires money for capital projects to follow the council’s formulas.

Muñoz says he still thinks the Public School Capital Outlay Council can and should cut the strings.

We get both sides.

Public school funding in New Mexico is labyrinthine to say the least. In a formula that tries to achieve equity in facilities, dollars spent on one project take away from another, leaving well-meaning legislators playing financial whack-a-mole.

But from the ground level, this problem doesn’t make sense. If you’re a parent in Quemado watching shooting after shooting on the news, you don’t care about some tortuous funding formula. You just want your child’s school to get a secured entryway.

And while the 2019 legislative session is over, interim committees – including the council’s – will begin to meet ahead of the 2020 legislative session. Lawmakers need to put their heads together to come up with a fix. Students in districts like Quemado, Taos and Carrizozo and charters like Albuquerque School of Excellence and Southwest Aeronautics, Mathematics and Science Academy deserve secure entryways and surveillance cameras as much as students anywhere.

Good legislative intent won’t pave a road to safer schools. Lawmakers need to work to solve this issue, because inaction effectively shoves the pot of money high up on a shelf where some public schools will have a hard time reaching it.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.