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Public school funding in focus

The state Public Education Department is hoping for an increase in its operational budget. (Eddie Moore/Journal)

SANTA FE, N.M. — New Mexico public school funding could play a prominent role in this year’s 30-day legislative session, due to the shadow cast by a landmark court case and the state’s cash-flush budget situation.

The state Public Education Department is hoping for an extra $53.5 million for at-risk students and a 4% salary increase for educators.

In the current budget year, the total schools and PED operational budget was $3.283 billion. For the coming year, the PED is eyeing $3.455 billion, according to PED Deputy Secretary Tim Hand.

The PED is also seeking $93 million to fund 4% salary increases for all school personnel, including teachers.

Public Education Secretary-designate Ryan Stewart previously told the Journal that the increase would apply to everyone from education assistants and custodian employees to top administration. And it could even apply to superintendents, although that would be up to districts’ boards of education, he said.

Teachers and school administrators received 6% pay raises last year, and lawmakers increased starting teacher pay to $41,000 annually, while also bumping up pay levels for more veteran teachers under the state’s three-tier system.

The changes were part of a plan to address a 2018 court ruling that found New Mexico was failing to provide a sufficient education to all students.

Although the PED isn’t requesting an increase in the tier bases again, the 4% raise would also apply to teachers. And if the PED’s budget request is approved, school personnel are looking at a 10% pay raise over two years.

The PED is aiming to increase funding for students who are considered “at risk,” used to describe students who face hurdles such as learning English or coming from low-income families.

The additional funding request comes as the state is responding to late District Judge Sarah Singleton’s ruling that found New Mexico was not providing sufficient education for students with disabilities, English-language learners, students from low-income families and Native American students.

The plaintiffs have argued that the state hasn’t done enough in response, despite the spending increase. Gail Evans, lead counsel for the Yazzie plaintiffs, has said the PED’s request does not go far enough to provide resources for these students.

The PED is looking to increase at-risk index funding in fiscal year 2021 by $53.5 million.

Some lawmakers have voiced concern over how PED will track the funding for at-risk students.

Stewart has pointed out challenges to tracking the money, too. For instance, existing systems don’t follow exactly where each dollar for at-risk students is allocated. But he said the PED is working to streamline the oversight.

Other priorities include consolidating funding streams for K-5 Plus and Extended Learning Time, two programs that extend the school year with the aim of increasing participants’ academic gains.

Stewart, who was appointed PED secretary in May 2019 after the agency’s previous secretary was abruptly fired, said the PED aims to combine the two programs’ funding streams, because money is left over from K-5 Plus that could go to pay for an increased demand for extended learning time.

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