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APS examines options in trimming budget

Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal

Albuquerque Public Schools is considering budget-cutting options that include layoffs, shortening the academic year and scheduling some four-day weeks across the district – although administrators stress that those are last resorts.

On Monday, the APS board finance committee held a brainstorming session to discuss cost-cutting ideas in anticipation of a possible additional $7 million to $12 million reduction for the current fiscal year, though the final numbers will be determined by lawmakers over the course of the 60-day legislative session.

Chief Finance Officer Tami Coleman told the Journal that “everything is on the table.”

A document she sent to board members included layoffs, a shorter academic year and some four-day weeks across the district as possibilities. The latter two options amount to districtwide furloughs because APS’s roughly 12,000 employees would not be paid for the missed days.

“It is a tough conversation,” Coleman said. “Nobody likes to have these conversations. We do not want to enact any of these things.”

Coleman said she brought up the ideas to get the discussion started and said none of them is moving forward at this time. APS is waiting for final budget figures from state lawmakers, who are grappling with a $69 million deficit for the current fiscal year, largely due to declining oil and gas revenue, with another deficit looming for the new fiscal year that begins July 1. The session began Tuesday and runs through March 18. Schools across New Mexico are bracing for millions in cuts.

“We know that they have a very serious situation in Santa Fe, and we know we will have to be part of it as a public education provider,” Coleman said.

She acknowledged that students need their classroom time, but said administrators have no choice but to consider every possibility, including fewer days of school, to address the looming shortfall.

The district already lost $12.5 million during the Legislature’s special session in October – $9.5 from the operational budget and $3 million from the “categorical” budget that includes areas like transportation and instructional materials.

With the current fiscal year ending on June 30, APS will have to act fast to address any additional cuts that come down this year.

Layoffs are the last resort, said Coleman, who would prefer to enact furlough days. Shutting down the district – either through a four-day week or shorter academic year – saves money on payroll, utilities and transportation. A one-day closure adds up to about $2.5 million in savings.

Under state statute, schools must offer a minimum number of instructional hours each year, and any reduction requires special dispensation from the Legislature. In addition, the APS board would have to vote on the proposal because it approves the academic calendar.

Board member Barbara Petersen said it is upsetting to consider yet another round of budget cuts.

Already, APS has reviewed all Central Office departments for cost-cutting measures and enacted a hiring freeze on non-classroom jobs, though critical positions like police officers are still being filled. In addition, 35 top administrators took a one-day furlough at the beginning of the month, adding up to about $20,000.

“I think people don’t realize how much the district has done, really since 2008, to keep paring back,” Petersen said. “When we start talking in the millions (in cuts), there is no place really left to go without looking at schools. … What we get down to now is telling schools that they have to make the Sophie’s Choice of, are you going to do without your counselor or your nurse? Are you going to put five more kids in the classroom or are you going to save an art program or a music program?”

The District 4 board member said times are tough, but the state must be committed to education.

Gov. Susana Martinez’s proposal to pull $120 million from district cash reserves across the state is not in line with that commitment, according to Petersen, who added that those funds are critical because they impact the bond rating and help keep schools in the black from month to month.

The proposal is to take reserves in excess of the recommended 5 percent. APS’ reserves at the end of the last fiscal year were $53.9 million or 8.5 percent, according to a legislative analysis released this week.

Late Wednesday, the Senate approved a different plan that would reduce the amount of funding each school district receives this year by about 2 percent – or roughly $50 million.

That proposal would cost APS about $12 million for the rest of the current year.

But, Petersen said, “We need people to recognize that we’re not sitting on some big pile of money, wasting it.”

“Everyone who works in a school has this attitude, ‘We will make it OK for kids no matter how badly the sky is falling and how desperate things are,'” she added. “We are really to a point where it is impossible to do that anymore.”

Journal Capitol Bureau reporter Dan Boyd contributed to this report.


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