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PED requesting ‘near-flat’ $3.3 billion budget for schools next year

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

State Public Education Secretary Ryan Stewart is asking lawmakers for “a near-flat” $3.3 billion to fund schools next year, and he wants to start channelling millions more to schools with the lowest-income students and to earmark money to help students overcome the effects of the pandemic.

The new proposals hinge on legislative approval to use money originally set aside for extended-learning programs. But at Wednesday’s Legislative Finance Committee hearing – where Stewart presented his proposal – LFC staff indicated their recommendation will be to use that fund mainly for the extra learning time.

For schools’ primary funding stream, the funding formula, PED is looking for about $3.17 billion.

While school leaders have been bracing for potential budget cuts, state economists said this week that revenue is expected to be higher than initially projected.

Before the improved forecast, the governor’s administration had directed state agencies to expect 5% spending cuts. That is reflected in PED’s request of $13.6 million from the general fund for agency operations in FY22, which is down from the current fiscal year.

PED is seeking permission to redirect from the fund roughly $56 million – over two years – originally earmarked for extended learning to specifically benefit schools with students from families with the lowest incomes.

Several legislators said they were intrigued by the idea of targeting some state education funds at lower-income schools, but they stopped short of pledging support for the proposal.

Rep. Patricia Lundstrom, D-Gallup, chairwoman of the House Appropriations and Finance Committee, expressed concern that the proposal could take funding from other programs, such as K-5 Plus, a program that offers an extended school year for certain elementary school-age children,

And Rep. G. Andrés Romero, D-Albuquerque, urged top PED officials to propose the funding initiative in a stand-alone bill – and not just as language in the annual budget bill. Stewart said the agency would work to draft such stand-alone legislation.

PED also pitched using another $95 million over two years from the reform fund to combat effects of the pandemic on students. That would go toward increasing schooling time for K-2 students, and 11th- and 12th-graders, and for professional development days for teachers to help with learning loss, among other things.

Another effect of the pandemic has been disruptions to enrollment.

Stewart said school and transportation funding for the 2021-22 school year shouldn’t be tied to enrollment counts from this school year.

Superintendents have pushed for past enrollment data to be used to calculate budgets.

Looking ahead, Stewart said he’s hopeful New Mexico students will be back in traditional classrooms by next fall, if not sooner.

“I think we’re going to be back in person in the fall of 2021,” Stewart said. “It all depends on the course of the virus and what the risks are going forward.”

Also on the table is encouraging districts and charters to implement programs that boost the amount of time kids spend learning in a year: K-5 Plus and Extended Learning Time. PED is looking to get districts extra money for career and technical education programs and community schools if they opt into either of the programs.

PED’s proposals are aimed at addressing the findings of the Yazzie-Martinez lawsuit, which concluded the state wasn’t meeting its constitutional obligation to provide a sufficient education to all students, especially those considered “at risk.”

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