Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal
Nicole Nagy, a social worker at Chamiza and Ventana Ranch elementary schools, fixated on education news from the Legislature this spring.
When she saw the governor and lawmakers had pulled together minimum salary increases for teachers and level-three counselors, she knew it was a good thing for them, especially in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Still, she couldn’t help but question if social workers like herself, and other licensed educators like level-one and level-two counselors, would be getting the same raises this time around. She said she raised that issue with lawmakers.
“You have us getting left behind while they’re moving up,” Nagy, a member of the Albuquerque Teachers Federation, said. “Why are we saying one profession’s more important, or should be paid more than the other? We’re all working with the children to get their goals met.”
For teachers and level-three counselors, the 7% raises guaranteed to all public education employees by Senate Bill 1 will be boosted if needed to meet the new minimum salary increases. Those increases average around $10,000.
That amounts to an average of nearly 20% raises for teachers and level-three counselors, Albuquerque Teachers Federation President Ellen Bernstein said.
“Which is great, we’ve been advocating that for a long time,” she said. “It’s good, because that makes us more regionally competitive, at least until everybody else raises their salaries.”
But that 20% raise will only be given to those teachers and level-three counselors, Bernstein said, leaving other instructional support providers behind. She said the school personnel being shortchanged include social workers, nurses, many counselors and different therapists. Most hold licenses, she said.
Up until now, Albuquerque Public Schools employees in many of those positions had been on a similar salary schedule as teachers and level-three counselors, Bernstein said. As it currently stands from state laws and funding for the coming year, they’ll apparently be lumped in with all other public education employees receiving a 7% raise, she said.
“(That’s) the difference between a $9,000 raise for a beginning teacher at 22% and a 7% raise which is only $2,800,” Bernstein said. “It’s not OK to leave a counselor making thousands of dollars less than a teacher.”
Under Senate Bill 1, level-three counselors will receive the same minimum salaries as level-three teachers. No other instructional service providers besides level-three counselors were named in the bill as receiving the same raises as teachers.
According to the APS website, career pathway nurses, counselors, social workers, interpreters, speech and language pathologists, physical therapists, occupational therapists, and orientation and mobility specialists are among the instructional support providers who currently have the same minimum salaries as teachers.
Problem for state
New Mexico Senate President Pro Tem Mimi Stewart acknowledged that instructional support providers’ role in children’s education are “crucial,” and that they help address the many needs of students and families.
That said, she noted that pay for teachers and instructional support providers, whom she referred to as ancillary personnel, is ultimately up to individual school districts, adding that unions often negotiate to have ancillary personnel on the same salary schedule as teachers.
“Every district has their own pay scale, and every district handles it slightly different than the next,” she said. “Those districts really are the ones that ought to be ensuring that ancillary personnel is paid adequately.”
She also noted that ancillary personnel have different processes, evaluations and requirements for advancing through their certificate levels than those laid out for teachers in state statute.
That snarls the implementation of similar three-tiered salary systems for each employee group, Stewart said.
She added that in some areas, many of them rural, ancillary personnel are even paid more than teachers by contracting across separate districts.
The pressing problem New Mexico schools face, Stewart said, is “not having enough good teachers,” noting there are currently around 1,000 classrooms statewide without certified, subject-matter teachers and that “everybody wants more money.”
She noted the decision in the Yazzie-Martinez lawsuit “does not talk about having good occupational therapy, or physical therapy, or speech and language.”
In that case, a judge found the state wasn’t meeting its constitutional obligation to provide a sufficient education to all students, especially those considered “at risk” like English language learners and those with disabilities.
While it’s true that districts set their own salary schedules, American Federation of Teachers New Mexico President Whitney Holland says forcing them to have to “find money to make these raises happen” is a burden on school districts. That’s why the union is looking at taking that decision off districts’ hands as a “top priority.”
“We’re internally identifying priorities around this issue, and how we can take pressure off of school districts and off of our locals,” Holland said. “Whether that’s through state statute, whether that’s through indexing, like we do principals, there’s a variety of options available. It’s just what makes it the most equitable and what we can fund long term.”
Lawmakers did set a pot of money aside – around $10.1 million – for targeted raises to help fill positions that are hard to staff, and some of that money is available for instructional support providers.
Legislative Finance Committee Senior Fiscal Analyst Sunny Liu said the recommendation arose from concerns about districts for such hard-to-staff positions.
“It was mostly for instructional staff needs such as your nurses, your counselors, your diagnosticians, other positions that are difficult to attract, maybe you need a special education teacher, or you need a bilingual teacher,” he said.
The funds, Liu said, will be distributed based on a formula accounting for districts’ sizes and changes in their enrollment. A different amount of funding is provided for some students, APS spokeswoman Johanna King said, based on different needs like special education.
In APS, enrollment has been on a downward track. Since around 2016, it’s dropped by around 1,000 to 2,000 students per year with the exception of 2022, when enrollment dropped by around 5,200 students, according to an LFC evaluation. The district that year had around 72,500 students, and in 2023 is budgeting for around 71,400, APS officials said in a recent budget planning meeting.
Also in 2022, an APS executive budget summary showed, student support staff dropped by 57 full-time employees, to 1,269. Instructional staff number around 8,234. The LFC evaluation noted that APS schools with higher numbers of low-income students are more likely to experience more vacancies.
Bernstein said the discretionary funds wouldn’t be enough to address the issue, given that APS would see a “tiny little bit” of that pot of money.
“(Around) $10.1 million for the whole state means that APS is going to see a quarter of that at best,” she said. “It won’t even come close to what we need to negotiate when we go to the collective bargaining table, and make sure that all these licensed people make the same as teachers … This year, it’s a bigger deal, because the percentage is so much bigger.”
According to the budget planning update, APS expects to receive around $2.3 million, around a 23% share, of those funds.
Bernstein said the union lobbied to get the pot of money increased to $20 million through an email campaign by members, to no avail. Now, they’ll go to the bargaining table to get what they can to “make sure that people aren’t divided into two classes of pay,” she said.
Those negotiations are underway, according to the district.
“APS is currently in contract negotiations with ATF,” APS spokeswoman Monica Armenta said.
She added that was “the extent of information available at the moment” when asked how instructional support provider salaries may increase with the state’s recent round of raises.
During the budget update, Executive Director of Budget Rosalinda Montoya said APS apparently hadn’t received the funds needed from the state for the minimum salary increases or the state’s wage increase for public education staff to $15 per hour.
For teachers and level-three counselors’ minimum salary increases, the district is expecting around $17.9 million in state funds, but says it will need $27.6 million, meaning it will be missing around $9.7 million.
APS Superintendent Scott Elder said part of the problem was that APS had counselors and “other role groups on tiers.”
“So these people are eligible now to have an increase in their base salary, but that was not funded that way,” he said. “So that’s a lot of the miss on the tiered funding.”
The 7% raises for all public education staff was one area they had been adequately funded by the state, APS officials have said, with the district receiving over $41 million, exceeding the costs to the district by around $1.6 million.
The budget update came after a sobering evaluation of the district’s finances by the LFC, which found the district’s spending and physical infrastructure has grown over the last 10 years while student enrollment and achievement have dropped, particularly since the pandemic.
Nagy acknowledged the district’s budget woes. Still, she hopes APS and the union will be able to come to an agreement on how to pay instructional support providers and teachers on the same scale, and that the issue can be addressed on a statewide level.
“Lawmakers need to include the essential and related services in the teachers’ salary increases, because we are working with the students and are in the schools,” she said. “Everyone back on the equal paying scales, I think, will encourage a more positive attitude going back to school in the fall.”