Albuquerque Public Schools has been steadily losing students for years and currently has 400 more teachers and staff members than it should.
Yet student achievement, especially among “low-income students,” has faltered, particularly since the COVID-19 pandemic.
It’s time for school officials to right-size and seize opportunities to improve student performance, analysts for the powerful Legislative Finance Committee said in a sobering review released Wednesday.
“Despite more funding, and fewer students, student outcomes in the district remain low and are getting worse,” lead LFC program evaluator Katie Dry told lawmakers. She noted that APS is the state’s largest school district, responsible for educating nearly a quarter of New Mexico students and for a similar percentage of the state’s public education budget.
“So what happens in the district in terms of funding and enrollment and student performance has important implications for the rest of the state,” she added.
APS Superintendent Scott Elder said the evaluation “highlighted some realities” for the district, though some were not news, and that leadership had made progress on some of the issues, like eliminating hundreds of vacant positions and moving staff around. The district’s Executive Director of Budget Rosalinda Montoya at a later board meeting said APS might consider consolidating schools in 2024.
“We understood we were going to be reviewed, and that they would find things that we would have to address,” Elder told the committee. “We understand our role in the state to improve the state outcomes, and we look forward to working with you to make improvements in the state because there are some things that you know, and we know that need to be changed.”
While operational spending has gone up between 2012 and 2021 by $126 million, or 21%, enrollment has dropped by 17% over the last decade, a statistic evaluators cited repeatedly in the report. State funding has also gone up during that time, by $136 million, or 23%.
Elder acknowledged that per-pupil funding has increased, but said that so has inflation and mandatory salary increases. The district is short around $22 million for salary increases when factoring in raises for federally-funded employees, he said, adding that it would be potentially “fiscally irresponsible” to use funds set to expire in the coming years for recurring expenses.
Evaluators said in the report that APS has received more state funding to cover compensation increases, and that district resources are the “highest they have been in the last decade, even when adjusting for inflation.”
School property has also increased by 21% since 2012, evaluators wrote, while enrollment has “shifted across the city.” Still, schools with more low-income students have typically had a higher need for buildings to be fixed, despite the district prioritizing capital funds for them.
“We’re putting Band-Aids on the most urgent issues,” Elder said. “The taxpayer rate for Bernalillo County is already higher than many other counties in the state.”
He added the district would welcome conversations and support from the Legislature about how to shift students to another school, which in turn may cause them to change neighborhoods or increase transportation time and costs.
“Closing schools … is complicated, political and often harms the communities that need the most support,” Elder said.
The dropping enrollment has been driven by falling birth rates — down by 24% between 2010 and 2020 — and climbing enrollment in state and local charter schools in Albuquerque, up by 6,300 students since 2012.
“I would be concerned if I were APS and I read that statistic because that tells me that parents are voting with their feet in terms of where they’re taking their children, and how they view APS currently,” said Rep. Ryan Lane, R-Aztec. “So I hope APS will take note of that.”
Evaluators said APS “consistently overestimates” spending, particularly in general supplies and materials, averaging between 2017 and 2021 around $30 million in overestimated spending in that category.
And yet, evaluators said, the district claimed an “apparent deficit” about every year, which partly stems from budgeted revenues being surpassed by spending assumptions that “actually don’t end up materializing.”
That’s allowed by the state Public Education Department as long as school districts can cover the difference with cash on hand, LFC evaluators noted, but that rule contributes to the seeming deficits. They added that districts realistically don’t use up all their cash on making up that gap.
In fact, they said APS has kept its cash balances in excess, consistently surpassing its target of 5% of operational spending since 2014. In 2021 it had $11 million more than its 5% target.
APS’ rising spending can also be tempered by consolidating kindergarten through sixth-grade classes and overall grades, most of which are under-enrolled. Kindergarten classes, they said, have seen the “greatest decline of any grade” of 2,700 students since 2012.
Dwindling enrollment in such lower grades, along with faltering birth rates, “will mean further enrollment declines in coming years,” evaluators warned.
Other spending areas to work on, the evaluators said, include a workforce that over the last 10 years has only gone down by 3%, despite an enrollment drop of 17% during that time frame.
Funded but unfilled positions also play a role in apparent deficits, Dry said.
Under the school funding formula for 2022, APS schools should have 8,753 full-time employees, but actually have 9,169. That means the district had 492 more K-12 teachers than the formula called for but 357 fewer special education teachers and educational assistants than recommended.
“APS is faced with a challenge of adjusting its workforce and physical infrastructure to the reality of its declining student population,” evaluators wrote.
In keeping with a trend playing out across the country and state, teacher vacancies grew at APS, particularly in “low-income schools” and in special education, but program evaluator Clayton Lobaugh said school vacancies have yet to be considered in terms of dropping enrollment.
“Some positions might no longer be needed if classes were right-sized,” he said.
As an example, APS could tackle both under-enrolled elementary school and sixth-grade classes and overstaffing by combining classes and cutting teaching positions by around 42, evaluators said.
They would essentially be replaced by 13 EAs, as larger class sizes are typically entitled to them.
Evaluators said the majority of kindergarten through sixth grade, or 60% to 74%, of classes and grade levels were enrolled below capacity, providing “opportunities for consolidation.”
The majority of students in APS — 67% specifically — were counted as “at-risk” in 2022, evaluators wrote, meaning an allocation of $71.6 million in state funds.
“At-risk” students include low-income and English learner students. District students, and low-income students in particular, according to mid-year assessments, have seen slowed growth in proficiency compared with pre-pandemic rates. Evaluators noted that high-school graduation rates, while improving, have lagged behind national averages.
APS said in a news release that those rates have improved in the past seven years, and now sit at around 80% when excluding charter schools.
Low-income students also tended to have higher rates of absenteeism, according to APS and PED data.
More class time
Evaluators said APS should make use of state-funded, “evidence-based” programs like extended learning time or K-5 Plus to help with achievement woes.
On April 6, APS board members rejected a proposal to implement extended learning time and the elementary-geared Transformational Opportunity Pilot Schools model, which would have added extra days and hours, across the district. They cited community disapproval as factors into their decision.
“For my teaching staff, a lot of it was just ‘we’re tired, we’re burnt out — even (for) 10 days extra,'” Elder said.
“This is probably the first time in education that I recall teachers saying ‘enough, I won’t take more money, because I can’t do anything more.’ That’s unusual.”
Models that add classroom time could allow for more staff professional development, along with improving student test scores and college readiness, evaluators said. However, APS hasn’t capitalized on all the funds the state made available for such models, evaluators said, instead walking away from around $46 million in 2021.
Sen. Siah Correa Hemphill, D-Silver City, was sympathetic to the burnout teachers have felt, noting educators she’s spoken with highlighted an improvement to morale and hope, and that would be key in encouraging extended learning time programs.
“We don’t have that buy-in, teachers are burnt out, and so if we can’t change the environment, we need to improve it and improve the way that we’re interacting with each other so that we’re recognizing that social-emotional piece within the staff as well,” she said.