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Bill allowing shorter school days advances

SANTA FE – A proposal that would grant New Mexico school districts the flexibility in financial emergencies to shorten the school day or school year below state-mandated requirements cleared its first Senate committee on Friday.

The measure was amended to make it clear that the new flexibility couldn’t be used to impair the terms of a union contract covering teachers or other employees.

It comes as school districts absorb a 3.5 percent cut in state funding – after they set their budgets for the year – and consider reducing teachers’ pay by forcing them to take unpaid time off.

The proposal, Senate Bill 290, now heads to the Senate Finance Committee, potentially its last stop before reaching the Senate floor. It would also need approval of the House and Gov. Susana Martinez.

The Martinez administration opposed the proposal. Paul Aguilar, deputy secretary of public education, said districts already have the flexibility they need, though in some cases they must get state approval.

He also disputed that school districts need to force teachers and other employees to take unpaid days off.

“To cut the amount of teaching time down for students is not good,” Aguilar said. “Our analysis doesn’t indicate those (reductions) will be necessary.”

The districts are supposed to tap into cash balances – reserves – to offset the state funding cuts.

But Albuquerque Public Schools and other districts say they need the cash to cover costs in some cases when they’re awaiting reimbursement by the federal government or another source.

“Teacher furloughs are anticipated in some of these school districts,” said Sen. Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque and a retired teacher.

Sen. William Soules, D-Las Cruces and sponsor of the bill, said empowering districts is necessary to help them “get to the end of the year when we have a crisis situation.”

The bill has an emergency clause that would allow it to go into effect immediately upon final approval.

The new flexibility to shorten school days or end the school year early would kick in only when the state reduces education appropriations by 2 percent after the districts have already set their budgets.

The Senate Education Committee voted 4-2 to recommend passage of the bill. It was a party-line vote, with Democrats in favor.

The governor and Legislature have been making budget cuts aimed at ensuring New Mexico can pay its bills through the end of the fiscal year, amid faltering revenue from oil and gas.

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