Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – New Mexico school districts would be empowered to shorten the school day or end the school year early to help offset state budget cuts this year under a proposal that surfaced Wednesday in the state Senate.
The bill, sponsored by Sen. William Soules, D-Las Cruces, made unlikely allies of Gov. Susana Martinez’s administration and teachers’ unions – both of which questioned the proposal during a committee hearing.
Superintendents and school boards, in turn, spoke in support.
“It’s a crisis none of us are happy about being in,” said Soules, who has worked as a teacher himself.
The Senate Education Committee heard testimony on the proposal Wednesday and scheduled it for further consideration Friday morning.
The proposal, Senate Bill 290, would allow school boards to lift state-imposed requirements on teaching loads and length of the school day or school year during a fiscal crisis. They could also modify staffing patterns and make other adjustments.
That could mean reduced pay for teachers or other employees, though it’s unclear whether union contracts could block those moves.
The flexibility, in any case, would kick in only when the state reduces education appropriations by 2 percent after the districts have already set their budgets. And they could lift the state requirements only through the end of that school year.
Soules’ bill includes an emergency clause that would allow it to go into effect immediately upon approval by the Legislature and governor.
A representative of the Public Education Department spoke against the bill, saying school districts already have much of the flexibility proposed, if they get approval from the Cabinet secretary. He also said the proposed exemptions are too broad.
Union leaders said the proposal doesn’t go far enough to ensure that teachers would be involved in the decision-making.
“We need to figure out together what makes the most sense for the kids,” Ellen Bernstein of the Albuquerque Teachers Federation said in an interview.
Sen. Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque and a retired teacher, urged Soules to speak with union leaders and the Public Education Department to try to address their concerns before the Friday committee hearing.
“This is something I don’t think any of us really want to do,” Stewart said, “but we understand the necessity” of considering it.
Charles Goodmacher of the National Education Association-New Mexico said he’s optimistic that the bill ultimately will include an amendment that gives districts the flexibility they need while preventing “further reduction of opportunities for student success here in New Mexico.”
The bill triggered a broader debate over how to help schools.
Sen. Craig Brandt, R-Rio Rancho, said the state went too far in cutting funding to school districts this year. He noted that his wife is a teacher.
“We have created a nightmare,” he said.
The governor and lawmakers this session have adopted a financial solvency package aimed at ensuring the state has enough cash to pay its bills through the rest of this fiscal year, which ends June 30.
Under the plan, school districts with cash balances larger than 3 percent will face immediate funding reductions. The reductions are expected to total roughly $46 million.
The districts are supposed to tap into their cash balances, or reserves, to offset the reductions and avoid classroom cuts. But school officials have also said they need the cash to help them cover costs, in some cases, before they’re reimbursed by the federal government or other sources.
State funding to school districts was already cut during a special session last fall, and school officials say this session’s solvency package means they have endured about 3.5 percent in state cuts since setting their budgets last year.
“We have budgeted responsibly and are appalled at the need for this,” Albuquerque school board member Barbara Petersen told senators, “but do not know how we can move forward without this in place.”