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House panel OKs budget boost, raises for schools

SANTA FE – State spending on public schools would grow by nearly $149 million next year under a budget proposal approved by a House committee Wednesday that would provide for 3 percent salary increases for all educational employees and higher raises for teachers.

The House Education Committee’s recommendations set the stage for a likely clash with Republican Gov. Susana Martinez over financing the operations of the state’s 89 school districts.

The governor and Democrats disagree over pay raises for public employees and how much control the Martinez administration should have in allocating money for school-improvement programs, such as assistance for students with difficulties learning to read.

The panel’s spending proposals go to the Appropriations and Finance Committee, which will consider them in assembling an overall budget for financing government operations ranging from courts, prisons and colleges to health care for the needy.

The Education Committee split along party lines in approving its $2.7 billion education budget proposal, which would provide for a 5.8 percent spending increase in the fiscal year that starts in July. Schools account for the largest share of New Mexico’s annual budget.

The governor has proposed a 3.9 percent budget increase for schools but no across-the-board salary increase for teachers and other educational employees, such as counselors and transportation workers.

The committee proposed $20 million to help schools hire more teachers to meet class-size limits and teaching-load requirements, which have been relaxed since 2009 when the state struggled with a budget shortfall after the economy soured.

Besides a 3 percent raise for school workers, the panel recommended raising minimum salaries for all teachers by $2,000. Educational assistants would be in line for 6 percent average pay raises.

The governor has proposed a $3,000 increase in salaries for entry-level teachers and setting aside additional money for merit pay increases for teachers and principals.

Under the committee’s budget recommendations, minimum salaries would increase from $30,000 to $32,000 for an entry-level teacher; $40,000 to $42,000 for what’s called a “level 2” teacher; and $50,000 to $52,000 for the most experienced and qualified teachers.

Rep. Mimi Stewart, an Albuquerque Democrat and committee chairwoman, said she supported the increases as part of a plan to phase in $10,000 increases in base salaries for teachers over five years.

“It’s really time to move them up,” Stewart said in an interview.

She said that many schools have experienced high turnover among teachers and that New Mexico’s average salary for an experienced teacher has dropped since the 2008-2009 school year because of tight budgets.

The committee rejected a proposal by Republican members to adopt the governor’s budget recommendations for education.

The governor favors earmarking money for specified initiatives and giving the Public Education Department control over allocating grants to schools. Martinez, for example, sought $500,000 for establishing programs in more districts that allow students to obtain a college associate degree while attending high schools. The committee recommended no money for starting additional “early college high schools.”

The committee allocates most of the money in its budget through the state’s school-funding formula, giving flexibility to local school boards to decide how to spend the aid.

Rep. Jimmie Hall, R-Albuquerque, said the committee’s budget proposal could shortchange smaller schools and would continue “years of complacency and lack of accountability in our school districts.”