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Editorial: APS cash could have better served students

With all of our students’ needs, does anyone believe $14 million of employee retention bonuses will help the kids in Albuquerque Public Schools?

Internet connectivity problems and Wi-Fi dead spots – $14 million could have helped with that in the metro area.

One-on-one tutoring, beefed-up staffing, smaller class sizes, a take-home computer with online access – those things could make a meaningful difference in a state where three out of four students can’t read or do math at grade level.

Fourteen million dollars could have played a role in helping the district meet its constitutional obligation to provide a sufficient education to all students, especially students considered at risk, and especially considering the court ruling that New Mexico is falling far short in that department.

But what educational outcome will be improved by giving every full-time APS employee, save one, $1,000 and every part-time APS worker $500?

Yes, our K-12 public school employees faced multiple challenges through the pandemic and were asked to rise to an insurmountable task of delivering quality education in an unprecedented remote setup. And, yes, many put in extra hours and had to learn new skills.

They also got paid, unlike tens of thousands of New Mexicans who had their jobs put on hold for the better part of a year. APS employees – unlike many of their students’ parents – were not spending hours, days, weeks, months trying to get through to the state to file for unemployment.

And, yet, the APS administration has decided to essentially throw money out of an airplane next month to employees on the ground, excluding just one, Superintendent Scott Elder. Elder apparently wanted to reward employees for what they went through the past 16 months – an admirable goal. But is that the best way to spend the $14 million a school district spokeswoman says is needed to cover the bonuses?

Elder says the bonuses were made possible by the American Rescue Plan and its loosened restrictions on stimulus spending. APS received more than $104 million through the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act, and much went to programs aimed at helping students. But wouldn’t it have made more sense to use the $14 million to further boost those programs?

In May, APS promised employees a “one-time additional payment for COVID-related work,” paid during the end of teachers’ annual contract for the 2020-21 school year. But Elder soon backtracked after the Auditor’s Office raised concerns.

The state Constitution’s anti-donation clause prevents public employees from being paid additional compensation for work they’ve already done and been paid for. So, after some accounting sleight of hand and a nod from state Auditor Brian Colón, APS now plans to send out the money Aug. 20.

Elder says the stipends will help APS retain teachers amid a national hiring crunch: “If we can hold on to our highly qualified employees, we’ll be in a much better position.”

But few, if any, APS employee missed a paycheck due to the pandemic. Those who get the bonuses next month likely have already decided to return for the 2021-22 school year. To use the money for attracting teachers in hard-to-fill slots would have made more sense.

Are payments to everyone – this includes central office administrators – the best use of this money? Hardly.

APS could do more with it to further address the many educational challenges posed by COVID restrictions. Instead, our largest school district plans to open the plane doors and carpet bomb cash on employees. Parents and taxpayers can only hope there’s some collateral benefit for the kids.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.