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Advocates slam school districts for falling short on survey

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

If it had been a class assignment, some lawmakers and an education advocacy group would likely have handed some districts around the state an incomplete.

As part of this year’s budget process, school districts around the state were asked to identify what services they’re using to improve academic success for at-risk students. It was one of the questions on a Public Education Department questionnaire.

Districts received hundreds of millions in extra education funding during the last legislative session, including money earmarked for at-risk students.

But a new database shows that some school districts did not respond to the PED budget question, other districts gave a couple of sentences and generalizations, and some provided comprehensive narratives. Some are describing the responses as disappointing overall.

“At risk” is often used to describe students who face issues such as learning English or having to move frequently.

The budget question on the survey is timely as New Mexico responds to a landmark court ruling that found the state’s school system violates the rights of some students by failing to provide a sufficient education. The decision focused on students who are learning English, come from low income families or meet other criteria.

NewMexicoKidsCAN executive director Amanda Aragon said her nonprofit set up the database to discover where at-risk funding is going. But instead she found, for the most part, “flowery language that sounds good but doesn’t mean anything.”

The database shows Hondo Valley and Jal Public Schools, among other districts, left that question blank.

In Hagerman Municipal Schools, the reply didn’t describe specific resources for at-risk students.

“Hagerman’s conceptual framework establishes the shared vision for student and institutional success within Hagerman Municipal Schools. As such it provides direction for program, courses, instruction and accountability,” Hagerman’s budget survey response says.

Hagerman isn’t alone. The database revealed that districts across the state had replies that were vague or didn’t focus on at-risk students.

Aragon also criticized Albuquerque Public Schools’ response, which says that APS “has many programs to serve our at-risk students” and refers to a 74-page annual report.

She argued that the state’s largest school district should have given specific answers on the survey and not link to a pre-existing report that wasn’t drafted for this purpose.

APS spokeswoman Johanna King wrote in a statement that the report, which is an annual report from the Office of Equity, Instruction, Innovation and Support, is a comprehensive document that outlined “some of the many services and programs it provides to help potentially at-risk students.”

“(It) includes detailed information, statistics, graphs and next steps on a variety of services and programs in such areas as curriculum and instruction, early childhood development, equity and engagement, fine arts, innovation and school choice, language and cultural equity, Title I and student, family and community engagement,” King wrote.

The nonprofit leader said the findings were disappointing, though not surprising.

“Our first reaction was strong disappointment in the responses that districts provided. Sadly, I don’t think that we were necessarily surprised by that, but it’s still disheartening to read these answers,” she said.

Lawmakers echoed her disappointment.

In an interview, Sen. Jacob Candelaria, D-Albuquerque, said he isn’t satisfied with the information provided by school districts.

“Quite frankly,” he said, “I’m beyond disappointed in APS and many other school districts who seem to be operating under this assumption that they are entitled to all of this state money and they get to spend it without any oversight.”

Candelaria, a member of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, said that in the next legislative session, he will push to strengthen data-reporting requirements for school districts, for better information on how much education spending actually makes it into the classroom and a study on where New Mexico’s most experienced teachers are working.

APS’ brief response – and referral to another document – is particularly disappointing, he said, because the schools he represents on the Southwest Mesa don’t appear to be getting their fair share of the extra at-risk funding they should get based on their student population.

“The system that we are pumping money into is broken,” Candelaria said.

Rep. Christine Trujillo, an Albuquerque Democrat and chairwoman of the Legislative Education Study Committee, said the state should establish clear benchmarks and expectations. But districts, she said, also deserve time to show they can get results out of the increased state funding authorized this year.

“Although I don’t want to give them a pass,” Trujillo said, “I don’t want to criticize them unjustly.”

Republican Rep. Rebecca Dow of Truth or Consequences said she wants to see better oversight of the increased spending. But rural districts, she said, also need some flexibility to craft the programs that will work best in their communities.

“I do want to see where the funds go,” Dow said, “but I also want more local control on how they address at-risk students.”

Aragon said the idea for the database came after this year’s legislative session.

“The Legislature appropriated over $100 million in funding to support at-risk students, and yet we really have no insight to where that money has gone, or how it has been allocated at a school level,” she told the Journal.

During the session, the state approved a 16% increase in spending for public education, or about $446 million. But the legislation also granted districts broad discretion in how to spend the increased funding.

Aragon said the budget surveys were cited as a way to help monitor where that extra money is going.

Legislative analysts have also highlighted this issue, saying it isn’t clear how schools and districts throughout New Mexico are spending the extra money approved this year to help at-risk students.

Aragon is ultimately calling for districts to show, in detail, the at-risk resources that are being provided with the extra funding and that it behooves the state to be able to track and follow up on the answers.

The PED told the Journal that all 89 school district budgets were approved.

Ryan Stewart, secretary-designate of the PED, said the surveys weren’t used to determine if a budget was given the OK.

Rather, he said the documents were sent out to see where districts are currently.

“What’s the baseline of where districts are? Especially when it comes to at-risk funding so that we can start doing planning and setting some targets and looking at our systems for what needed to be changed and redesigned,” he said.

Stewart said the current system needs some work.

“When we look at things like the at-risk funding, the budget system that we currently have wasn’t really designed to meet some of the requirements that we are going to have going forward,” he said.

And he said there are changes in the works. For instance, districts will be required to submit reports that include how they are going to use at-risk funds next fiscal year, and it will be tied to budget approval.


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