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Enrollment drop could hurt funding for NM schools

SANTA FE – Members of the Legislative Education Study Committee heard pleas Wednesday to keep up school funding, even if enrollment is dropping because of the pandemic.

School funding in New Mexico is determined by the number of students enrolled. The count is not yet complete, but preliminary numbers show a significant drop in the state’s largest school district.

Reductions in enrollment are being seen across districts as a significant number of parents put their children into home schooling, delay enrollment, or struggle to connect with online programs.

In Albuquerque, enrollment has dropped by about 4,000 students, bringing the total to 76,000. Budget officials forecasted the figures during a meeting earlier this week in which they discussed financial hurdles the district is already facing.

School district spokesperson Monica Armenta cautioned that the 5% drop could change because enrollment numbers are still fluid.

Interim Superintendent Scott Elder believes that kindergarten students account for much of the undercount, with many families likely to hold their children back from entering school for one year.

“We could be looking at a kindergarten class of 150% of projection, perhaps even higher,” Elder told the committee concerning the next school year.

He said that if his district is penalized under the current funding structure, it could lose $36 million despite increased costs and a higher student population next year.

For the current fiscal year, APS will get about $706 million from the school funding formula for operations.

Last year, enrollment in Albuquerque had dropped by 1,000, a change attributed to a drop in the student population across New Mexico, where the population hasn’t grown much over the past decade.

During an online conversation Tuesday with Albuquerque Democratic committee member Rep. Natalie Figueroa, Public Education Secretary Ryan Stewart pitched viewers on legislation to freeze funding based on pre-pandemic numbers.

“We’ve heard from many many many of our board members and superintendents about the impact that the pandemic is having on enrollment this year and the way in which it’s really an outlier,” Stewart said.

That message was echoed by superintendents speaking to the legislative panel Wednesday, with lawmakers signaling support for legislation that would be drafted ahead of the January session.

“I like the idea of us not counting this year,” said Sen. Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque.

She called for the delay of some school reporting and funding mandates made more burdensome by the pandemic.

“We’re all going to have to be (dealing) with the effects of this year for several years so let’s give more flexibility, let’s not hamstring our districts,” Stewart said.

Journal staff writer Shelby Perea contributed to this report.

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