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Editorial: Gov. and lawmakers need to lock down school security funds

Faced with the clear need to upgrade safety measures at public schools in the wake of school shootings in New Mexico and elsewhere, the Legislature earmarked $46 million over four years to pay for security upgrades.

So it defies common sense that Albuquerque Public Schools, far and away the state’s biggest district, with more than 80,000 students, would get absolutely none of this money.

And to add insult to fiscal injury, staff at the agency that doles out the money – known as the Public School Capital Outlay Council – actually sent a letter to APS that said, “We are pleased to inform you that the (PSCOC) has approved a total net state award in the amount of $0.”

How tone deaf is that?

So there is zero state money for APS security measures – at a time when the state is flush with cash as oil and gas production have New Mexico on track to an all-time revenue high of $7.8 billion, and students are buying bullet-proof backpacks.

Of course, there are always legal/bureaucratic explanations for what most people would consider an example of madness.

The New Mexico Public Schools Facilities Authority was established by the Legislature in 2002 as a result of the so-called Zuni lawsuit, in which three school districts successfully challenged the equity of the state’s capital outlay distribution for schools.

The authority reports to and operates as staff to the PSCOC, managing a funding model that distributes state capital outlay to schools according to greatest needs first. The council is an unusual hybrid that is neither executive nor legislative. It consists of nine members ranging from an appointee from the Governor’s Office to legislative branch and New Mexico School Boards Association representatives.

The authority’s website says public school capital outlay “is constrained by the court with respect to the Zuni lawsuit. Sources of state funds for public school capital outlay are not from the general fund, but from a dedicated funding stream from severance tax revenues related to oil and gas extraction.”

It also says New Mexico schools have a staggering $2.91 billion unfunded facilities needs.

Jonathan Chamblin, director of the administrative staff arm of the PSCOC, says the council’s actions as they relate essentially to telling APS to take a hike are dictated by legislation designed to better equalize state funding of capital requests across New Mexico.

But Kizito Wijenje, executive director of master planning at APS, argues money that is meant to keep kids safe shouldn’t be subject to the contingences in the capital outlay formula. Incredibly, by accepting the award of $0, APS would have been obligated to put in roughly $9.5 million in matching funds for the projects. The district “declined,” and will have to try and find money for security projects in its budget.

“What should we put off?” Wijenje asks “Should we put off lead in the pipes? Should we put off, I don’t know, pre-K? Should we put off fixing roofs so that we can do security? I don’t think it’s fair for school districts to be asked to make that decision when it comes to security. It’s one of those things when you’re talking about life and health.”

He’s right.

The governor and key legislators should review this decision. If it absolutely was required by the Zuni lawsuit and statute, they need to figure out some way to fund security projects, not just at APS, but also at other schools around the state in the same situation.

In the event of an unspeakable tragedy, it won’t be much consolation to a grieving parent or community that a funding formula kept security measures on the drawing board.

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.

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