Judge: NM funding system for school building projects unconstitutional - Albuquerque Journal

Judge: NM funding system for school building projects unconstitutional

A judge has ruled that New Mexico’s system for funding school building projects is unconstitutional. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

A state judge in Gallup has ruled that New Mexico’s current system for funding and facilitating brick and mortar projects and other big ticket items in school districts is unconstitutional and he is ordering state officials to come up with a system that is fair to all students.

The ruling, issued by 11th Judicial District Court Judge Louis E. DePauli Jr. on Tuesday, says the Zuni and Gallup-McKinley school districts have shown that the capital outlay system in place is not uniform or sufficient, which goes against constitutional requirements.

“The trial evidence established that property-wealthy districts can spend millions and millions of dollars to build physical facilities over and above the (Public School Capital Outlay Act) adequacy standards for physical facilities that property-poor districts can only dream about, all the while bypassing the utterly complex and tortuous process of applying for and receiving ‘grant assistance…'” DePauli said.

He also found that the “present statutory scheme itself creates and allows substantial disparities among school districts in capital outlay funding.”

Sen. Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, said she needs more time to study the judgment, but believes the state should appeal the order.

“I see things in the ruling that don’t describe accurately what the state has been doing for the past decade on capital outlay,” Stewart said. She did not immediately elaborate on the inaccuracies.

Rep. Patty Lundstrom, D-Gallup, on the other hand, said the Legislature should change the capital outlay funding system for public schools in the upcoming 60-day legislative session.

“I am very willing and ready to work on getting this corrected as the judge has directed,” said Lundstrom, who is also chairwoman of the House Appropriations and Finance Committee. “It is my area of the state that has seen this disproportionate formula.”

DePauli found that the current system results in “property-poor” districts paying more in taxes but getting less.

Bob Rosebrough, a lawyer representing Gallup-McKinley County Schools, one of the districts suing the state, said the decision is the latest move in the Zuni lawsuit, a decades-old challenge to the state’s capital funding system.

“In the late 90s and early 2000s, the state did make a significant step forward in the funding, which allowed the current system … but it did not go far enough,” he said.

He added that the state has since gone backward in addressing issues and that’s why the districts sought additional legal action.

Rosebrough said a significant amount of funding for construction and maintenance of schools is dependent on how much money property taxes can generate.

“(The system) is not ‘uniform’ as intended because the funding scheme, being directly tied to the property wealth of the school districts, allows property-wealthy districts, at their discretion, to raise and spend much more money than property-poor districts to build facilities to their satisfaction while paying significantly lower tax rates,” the judge found.

The ruling also says that “property-poor” districts end up relying on the state to build facilities, but the state funding for capital outlay is insufficient.

“Plaintiffs have proven by a preponderance of evidence, that the capital outlay funding provided by the state … is insufficient, not only to provide adequate physical facilities, but also an adequate education to the children of the plaintiff’s districts,” the ruling states.

Mike Hyatt, superintendent of Gallup-McKinley, celebrated the decision.

“It’s absolutely a win. This shows once again that our students in New Mexico, especially our students in property-poor areas, are not finding equity in the system,” Hyatt said.

Hyatt said the reason his district is considered “property poor” is because of the significant amount of federal land that is nontaxable in his district boundaries.

“A significant part of the problem is we don’t have as much capacity as the average school district to raise revenue through mill levies and our bond capacity is low,” he said.

Tripp Stelnicki, a spokesman for Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, said in a statement that the administration has worked to help create a public education system with equitable funding and to make sure students have what they need to succeed.

Hyatt said his district was also involved in the Yazzie, Martinez case — a monumental lawsuit that found the state wasn’t meeting its constitutional obligation to provide a sufficient education to all students, especially students considered “at risk.” That ruling alone has considerably influenced decision making, funding and other efforts in education. Now, the state has this latest decision to face, too.

“Our students are not getting sufficient education as far as in the classroom and not only that … this win shows that our students are not even getting sufficient or uniform or equitable funding for the school buildings and technology,” Hyatt said.

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