Governor wants to give new teachers a raise

Gov. Susana Martinez, joined by her public education chief, Hanna Skandera, right, at Zuni Elementary School in Albuquerque, announces a plan to improve starting pay for New Mexico public school teachers. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Gov. Susana Martinez is urging state lawmakers to once again improve starting pay for New Mexico teachers, saying Wednesday that boosting minimum salaries to $34,000 a year would help school districts recruit more-qualified educators.

“Starting teacher salaries are too low in New Mexico,” Martinez said at a news conference at Zuni Elementary School in Albuquerque. “We need to make sure that we are competitive with other states and that we keep our good teachers here in our state when they graduate from our universities.”

The Republican governor, who was re-elected to a second term last month, also proposed two other public education initiatives, including a plan that teachers statewide be provided with a $100 debit card that could be used solely for school supplies. Teachers having to spend out of their own pockets for ordinary classroom supplies is a long-running gripe in New Mexico schools.

“We want our teachers to have all the tools they need,” Martinez said.

The governor’s pay plan ran into immediate criticism from some Democrats. State Sen. Howie Morales, D-Silver City, an unsuccessful candidate for the Democratic governor nomination earlier this year, said the teacher pay initiative would send the wrong message to veteran teachers, who would not receive a pay increase under Martinez’s plan.

“It sounds good that we’re going to give a salary increase to new teachers, but we’re got to make sure we’re embracing and respecting those longstanding professionals in the state,” Morales told the Journal .

He also said the debit card proposal might be unnecessary if more money was allowed to flow through the state’s funding formula for public schools.

Starting teacher pay in New Mexico was increased from $30,000 to $32,000 annually as part of this year’s state budget, after Martinez had asked for an even larger increase.

But the governor also used her line-item veto authority in March 2014 to axe pay increases for more experienced teachers.

In announcing her latest proposal Wednesday, Martinez said that starting teacher pay had – before this year – not been increased since 2004. She said an increase in minimum salaries for teachers would mean pay raises of as much as $2,000 a year for an estimated 2,000 educators statewide who currently are paid less than $34,000 per year.

The average national starting teacher salary was $36,141 as of late 2013, according to the National Education Association. The union also found New Mexico lagged behind most of its neighboring states in beginning teacher pay, outpacing only Oklahoma.

Pojoaque Superintendent Adan Delgado, who joined Martinez and her public education chief, Hanna Skandera, for Wednesday’s announcement, said increasing starting teacher pay would be a positive step.

“We’re absolutely seeing a crunch as far as competing for top-quality candidates,” Delgado told reporters.

The third proposal by the governor involved a teacher mentoring program.

If approved by lawmakers during the upcoming 60-day legislative session, the three proposals unveiled Wednesday by Martinez would cost the state a projected total of $11.5 million in the coming budget year.

While the estimated amount of money available for state spending next year has been cut in half due to an ongoing dip in oil prices, Martinez said she thinks there should be enough money to fully fund the new ideas.

“We have to set our priorities and our children are our No. 1 priority,” she said in response to a question about the budget impact.

The optional new teacher mentoring program would offer a state stipend to participating teachers. The size of the stipend has still not been determined, Skandera said.

The $100 debit-card program is modeled after similar programs in other states. It would require that teachers submit receipts for purchased classroom supplies. The amount available under the program could be increased in future years.

Both the mentoring and debit-card programs would be funded by targeted appropriations that would not flow through the funding formula, which distributes public school dollars among the state’s 89 school districts.

The Martinez administration and Democratic lawmakers have clashed in recent years over what percent of the public education budget – currently 44 percent of total state spending – should go through the funding formula.

Meanwhile, the Martinez administration recently announced a separate plan to spend about $7 million this school year on merit-based pay – a program that provides extra pay for certain individual teachers – at nine school districts and 12 charter schools around the state.

The 60-day legislative session begins Jan. 20.