LFC: Yazzie-Martinez lawsuit response lagging - Albuquerque Journal

LFC: Yazzie-Martinez lawsuit response lagging

Students board a school bus in front of Los Ranchos Elementary School. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

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Journal Staff Writer

Earlier this month, lawmakers were told that despite more than $1 billion of investments responding to the findings in the Yazzie-Martinez consolidated lawsuit, it’s unclear if students named in the lawsuit are “any better off.”

Much of the responsibility to right the ship falls squarely on school districts, according to a Legislative Finance Committee report, and they have had problems implementing remedies to a judge’s findings that New Mexico wasn’t providing a sufficient education system for “at-risk” students.

The state Public Education Department, in turn, has also had issues making sure districts are doing what they need to do.

“Implementation and oversight challenges remain hurdles to improving student outcomes in our state,” evaluator Rachel Mercer Garcia said. “Given the learning loss associated with the pandemic, New Mexico faces a heightened need to really ensure resources are directed toward evidence-based programs to help support students and catch them up.”

Oversight is something the PED is addressing in its coming iteration of the Yazzie-Martinez action plan, Education Secretary Kurt Steinhaus said. The department has said that will be finalized by the end of this month.

“Is it the PED’s (responsibility) to provide oversight and increase our oversight? Yes. And we are working on that,” he told lawmakers.

Districts haven’t taken advantage of money set aside for programs the court found would help improve education for “at-risk” students, especially when it comes to extended learning time and K-5 Plus programs. LFC analysts earlier this year reported that schools have collectively forgone $400 million in funds for both.

At the same time, they’ve also held over more and more in their cash balances over the years, and have seen a more dramatic jump since 2017, according to the report. At the end of last fiscal year, districts and charter schools were collectively carrying over $525.5 million.

But that money is sometimes held over because districts can’t count on being reimbursed by the PED in a timely way, Rep. Gail Armstrong, R-Magdalena said.

Growth in spending on central services – human resources, district planning and other costs – has also outpaced the growth of spending on instruction and student support services, according to the report. That said, Mercer Garcia noted that most of districts’ operational spending does go to instruction.

Districts should spend more of their “at-risk” funding and state appropriations on hiring instructional support providers like social workers and counselors, evaluators said.

On the PED side, turnover in the department’s leadership – New Mexico has had four education secretaries since the July 2018 ruling – has contributed to a murky response to the lawsuit.

The state needs to be able to stay the course if that happens, said Sen. Roberto “Bobby” Gonzales, D-Ranchos de Taos.

“What I’d like to see is some safeguards to what happens if there’s a change in administration,” he said. “We put (in) a lot of funding, we put (in) a lot of hard work, and we don’t want to see things like this go out the window in four years, or whenever (there)’s a change of administration.”

The PED has hired over 80 people in the 14 months Steinhaus has been on board, he said.

“We have a good team of people, they’re performing at a very high level, and I feel confident that we can move forward,” he said. “Are we anywhere close to where we need to be? No, but we are on a path.”

LFC staff have also called for the PED to more closely monitor bilingual programs, which have seen declining participation over the last 10 years as English learners increased.

Mercer Garcia said the department also needs to look closer at spending of “at-risk” funding, adding that there’s currently a lack in mechanisms to make sure those dollars are being used “in a targeted way.”

Steinhaus said the PED has largely implemented accounting codes allowing districts to report that spending, and that the department is currently collecting that information.

There have been areas that have seen progress, Mercer Garcia said.

That includes the average-$10,000 minimum salary increases for teachers approved by lawmakers earlier this year, which she pointed out have made New Mexico more regionally competitive in compensating its educators.

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