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Suit against state may be only way



SANTA FE, N.M. — Santa Fe’s public schools are off to a good start in 2013. By every measure, the first month of school has been a success, and with two new schools under construction and slated to open in 2014, the future for Santa Fe’s students looks bright.

However, funding this school year’s important work in the classroom and establishing a sustainable funding structure for the future has been an extraordinary challenge.

Over 150 community members provided input into the 2013 budgeting process, ensuring that every dollar was maximized this year. Santa Fe can be proud of the financial plan that SFPS adopted last spring. At the same time, everyone should recognize that school funding levels in New Mexico are nowhere near sufficient for the needs of our schools. Despite significant progress with this year’s financial planning process, with less-than-sufficient funding from the state, several programs in SFPS were downsized and a more optimal turnaround model for chronically under-performing schools remains dependent on philanthropic support.

The issue of funding sufficiency has been ongoing. In 2007, the state Legislature recognized that the state was falling woefully short of its constitutional obligation to provide sufficient funding to public schools and commissioned an external study by the American Institute for Research. Through their work with local and national experts, the institute determined that the state’s public schools were underfunded by more than $330 million.

More recent national data also appears to confirm this finding. In 2012, the National Center for Educational Statistics concluded that New Mexico’s average education spending per student was approximately half that of the highest state, and was ranked just 30th overall. Although state funding was increased in 2013, the unit value remains lower than it was in 2008, and a new study by the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities calculated New Mexico’s overall cuts to education over the past five years to be among the deepest in the country.

If the Constitution requires it, why aren’t schools getting the funding that they need?

Some critics have argued that public schools already receive more than 40 percent of total state revenue and that New Mexico is doing all that it can to support schools in a tight economy. However, the federal Department of Education recently disagreed, issuing a ruling that New Mexico violated federal law and chose to underfund special education by $30 million while the state’s general fund increased by 2 percent.

Despite this ruling and the current budget insufficiency, funding for public education is scheduled to drop by an additional $65 million in just a few years with no plan from the state to fill the gap. Currently 5.5 percent of interest from the state’s land grant permanent fund goes to K-12 education. That allocation is slated to be reduced to 5 percent in 2016.

A bill was put forward during this past legislative session by Rep. Jim Trujillo, D-Santa Fe, to hold the distribution at 5.5 percent to avoid another school funding pitfall. Although an internal analysis confirmed that the permanent fund would continue to grow significantly whether the distribution is 5.5 percent or 5 percent and that public schools would take another dramatic hit on top of already less-than-sufficient funding, the bill to hold funding for public education steady was voted down by the Legislature.

What can be done to solve this problem?

Given the limited options, as part of its 2013-2014 budget, the SFPS Board of Education committed $100,000 from its operational cash balance to a potential lawsuit against the state. The best use of the cash reserve is to pay for one-time strategic expenses, and this $100,000 is wisely invested if the result of litigation is sufficient state funding year over year.

We all would prefer to avoid a lawsuit. Unfortunately, it may be the only way to gain the financial support to which our students and schools are entitled by law. Our teachers deserve a living wage and our students deserve to have an adequate education. While our school district continues to do more with less, the state needs to step up and meet its constitutional obligation.

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