With 5,000 fewer students, Albuquerque Public Schools in typical times would stand to lose over $50 million in state money – given state dollars are tied to enrollment.
The state’s largest school district has faced steady enrollment declines for the past decade, losing about 1% of its students every year. Last school year enrollment plummeted an additional 4% – 5% total – as families chose private schools, public charter schools or to homeschool during the pandemic rather than participate in APS’ remote learning. In September 2020 the district – which had seen enrollment highs in the 90,000-plus range a decade ago – was down to 76,000.
Despite the stark decline in student numbers, there are hundreds of openings for teachers and educational assistants in the district. Yet rather than re-allocate personnel to where they are most needed, Superintendent Scott Elder wants to avoid staff layoffs and use fully a quarter of the nearly $200 million APS is receiving in the latest round of federal relief money to offset the loss of state funding due to enrollment loss.
This is on top of “retention bonuses” that came months after employees completed the ’20-’21 school year and a pending proposal to pay off employees’ student loans.
Maintaining staff with lower enrollment might make sense if APS reduces class sizes in an effort to improve teacher-to-student ratios and address pandemic learning loss. But there’s no apparent direct plan to do anything except avoid layoffs.
And both approaches ignore the fact the federal aid is one-time money and salaries are recurring expenses.
They also ignore the fact APS has been unwilling/unable to address what has become a routine loss of students.
Public Education Department Secretary-designate Kurt Steinhaus understands this, has declared this the year of literacy and is advising New Mexico school districts not to use American Rescue Plan Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funds for recurring expenses like salaries. Instead, he suggests that districts target the $1.3 billion of federal money they will receive over the next three years toward student learning, on culturally and linguistically responsive books and videos, and to provide students with electronic devices or internet access.
New Mexico school districts have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to invest in classroom infrastructure and address the achievement gap and learning loss – things that directly affect our teachers’ and students’ learning days.
So while it is tempting – and certainly easier – to use the federal windfall to maintain spending on staff, APS administrators need to be more imaginative and move the district beyond a status-quo mindset that has been losing students by the thousands for years.
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.