School districts near reservations focus on capital improvements - Albuquerque Journal

School districts near reservations focus on capital improvements

In this March 30, 2020, photo, a Pine Hill family receives meals from a Gallup-McKinley County Schools bus driver at the Pine Hill Market parking lot in Pine Hill, N.M. (Vida Volkert/Gallup Independent via AP)

Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal

Being close to a problem has its upsides and downsides. School districts near the Navajo Nation and Zuni Pueblo know that as well as anyone.

Sometimes, the district-level view of what needs to be done to better schools isn’t exactly in line with the visions of lawmakers. A few of those differences were on display during a Legislative Finance Committee meeting last week.

One point of debate was over apparent plans from districts to pour 90% of their impact aid for the coming fiscal year into brick-and-mortar projects and other high-dollar expenditures. Impact aid began as payments in lieu of taxes, but has come to include money for “federally connected children,” such as those who live on tribal lands, LFC Senior Fiscal Analyst Sunny Liu said in an interview.

Gallup-McKinley County Schools plans to spend over $62 million on capital outlay, Zuni Public School District plans $10.8 million, Central Consolidated School District plans $10 million, and Grants Cibola County Schools plans over $1 million, according to a presentation to the LFC.

Some state legislators said those dollars have historically been earmarked for classrooms. Students are performing below their peers across the state, according to the LFC presentation, which also noted that changes to state tests complicate comparisons with pre-pandemic performance.

Still, interim kindergarten through second-grade reading proficiency data included in the presentation suggested that all four districts lagged behind state numbers in 2022.

“Certain school districts aren’t abiding by the Yazzie-Martinez (consolidated lawsuit) and what we’re doing,” said Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup, vice chair of the LFC. “I think at some point … the Legislature’s going to have to step up and say, ‘OK, school districts, we’re going to have to sue you,’ and the courts are going to mandate that you do this.”

But Central Consolidated interim Superintendent Steve Carlson said that districts can use the money however they see fit. He said that the money would be spent partially to go beyond the state’s normal building limits, and that good buildings are important, and not just for learning.

“By allowing us to actually have our impact aid and capital outlay monies to go towards these facilities … we can make better facilities that communities can access,” Carlson said in an interview. “In communities such as Newcomb, there are no other facilities that folks can access.

“We’re doing our best to not just give them their basic needs, but to go beyond that,” he added.

In 2020, Navajo Nation leaders argued that federal impact aid dollars should not be used to address mandates from a 2018 decision in the Yazzie-Martinez consolidated lawsuit that said the state wasn’t providing a sufficient education for at-risk students.

Technology isn’t always a viable alternative to in-person learning. For example, most Central Consolidated families – many of whom live in remote communities – don’t have access to technology or the internet, Carlson told the LFC.

Legislators also homed in on extended learning time programs, which have had mixed buy-in across school districts, according to the presentation.

No students will participate in extended learning time or K-5 Plus programs next year in Gallup-McKinley, according to the presentation. Central Consolidated and Grants Cibola will each have 100% district participation in both programs, while Zuni will have only K-5 Plus.

A footnote in the presentation pointed out that Central Consolidated changed to a four-day school week, making up the fifth day with the K-5 Plus program, effectively keeping the same calendar.

“Part of the issue around this ties to a lawsuit that we’re trying to respond to,” LFC Chair Rep. Patricia Lundstrom, D-Gallup, said. “We’re caught in the middle here, because … you have had people that come in and actually testify that, ‘Yes, this is something that we think is a good thing.’ ”

The 2018 Yazzie-Martinez decision listed extended learning time among the reasonable programs the state has a duty to provide.

But superintendents said they need more wiggle room to help districts make the programs more appealing to their communities. “The Legislature, in my opinion, needs to do some work on that legislation … so there’s flexibility in how schools use those hours,” Gallup-McKinley Superintendent Mike Hyatt said. “Our local union said, ‘There is no amount of money that we will agree to to do extended learning.’ ”

Teacher recruiting and retention is also high on district leaders’ list of concerns. Although more state funding is flowing to educator salaries, Zuni Superintendent Randy Stickney said it wasn’t enough to cover everything.

“We were very excited, obviously, about the increase in the salaries and benefits for the teachers. But … it was not enough money to fully fund everything for Zuni schools,” she said, adding that the district will have to dip into cash balances and impact aid money to cover the difference.

Hyatt said that Gallup-McKinley is having trouble attracting teachers because it’s “much easier to find staff to go to Albuquerque than it is Tse’ Yi’ Gai or those rural places.”

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