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Las Crucens brainstorm ways to fund schools amid budget crunch

LAS CRUCES — Las Cruces residents and elected officials gathered Thursday evening to brainstorm ways to help the public schools cope with ongoing budget constraints that could worsen, depending on the final outcome of a state budget impasse.

One parent volunteered at Las Cruces Public Schools to help reduce the district’s paper use — and thereby some costs — by creating digital lunch menus. And a school board member raised the idea of a plastic bag surcharge, which could generate revenue for local governments that could be routed to the district. Yet another proposal was to consider a local tax to fund early childhood education. Another resident suggested schools rely on willing retirees who’d form a committee to find ways to assist schools.

Resident Brooke Roberson, a mother of two children who attend LCPS, encouraged district officials to look for ways to cut paper use overall because of the tight budget circumstances. Every bit of conservation helps, she said. And, if teachers can’t cut back any further, she said the district should consider asking parents to help supply paper.

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“You have thousands of parents like me,” she said. “If the school needs paper, we’ll buy it.”

About 65 people attended a town hall discussion hosted by Mayor Ken Miyagishima at Las Cruces City Hall over the future of public schools’ funding.

Another attendee cautioned that if LCPS officials should decide to ask parents to supply paper, they should make it optional because a lot of families already face difficult financial situations.

‘Some great ideas’

Miyagishima said there’s a lot of concern in the community about the state’s poor budget situation and its impact on schools. Declining oil and gas revenues shouldn’t mean that schools suffer, he said, and the town hall was meant to generate ideas about how the schools might weather the budget cuts and prevent future ones.

“Some residents have some great ideas,” he said.

The Las Cruces City Council doesn’t have oversight over the school district, which is governed by its own elected board. Miyagishima said the city was “here more, really, for moral support.”

Bruce Hartman, president of NEA-Las Cruces, the district’s teachers’ union, asked whether Miyagishima was considering a proposal to route local government funding to schools.

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State Sen. Bill Soules, who also attended, responded to the question, saying there is a state law aimed at ensuring that districts across the state, regardless of whether they’re in poor or wealthy areas, receive equitable funding. That law in a way penalizes localities that pass taxes to supplement their school district’s spending on teachers. It is a fair law because it promotes equity, he said, but there is a down side.

“The problem is what we have is shared poverty because we don’t put enough money into the (entire) system,” he said.

However, the law wouldn’t prevent local spending on early childhood education, which is prior to kindergarten, Soules said.

Crystal Valdez, chief financial officer for LCPS, said there are certain ways people can help the school district financially, such as by making donations up to $5,000 to a designated school. However, “it can’t be used for salaries,” she said. Valdez said donations by residents have helped.

“The community has been wonderful during this tumultuous year,” she said.

Plastic bag proposal

LCPS board member Ray Jaramillo discussed a proposal he developed in recent weeks that would entail local governments considering passing a surcharge on plastic bags in retail stores. He contends it’s not a tax because residents wouldn’t have to pay it if they opted to use reusable grocery bags, instead of plastic bags. Plus, he said the money would be routed to the schools in a grant format, bypassing the state law that hinders local funding going to school districts.

“This is not a tax; this is a fee,” he said. “If you bring your own bags, you don’t have to pay this.”

LCPS Superintendent Greg Ewing told attendees the district is budgeting conservatively in light of the ongoing uncertainty. He’s planning to curtail school administration and freeze some teaching vacancies for a total of $2.7 million in savings.

“But we don’t know what’s going to happen when the Legislature goes back into session,” he said, noting that deeper cuts could result in harsher impacts to the district. “We’re certainly willing to listen to any ideas you have.”

Soules and state Rep. Joanne Ferrary, both D-Las Cruces, rehashed the Democratic-controlled Legislature’s battle with Republican Gov. Susana Martinez over the 2017-18 state budget — and the education funding it contains. More than 40 percent of the state budget goes toward public schools, Soules said. And when higher education is factored in, education accounts for more than half of state spending.

“When we’ve got a negative budget situation, that’s where everybody wants to make cuts,” he said.

‘Stormy day’ in New Mexico

LCPS spokeswoman and administrator Jo Galván asked lawmakers why the Legislature doesn’t consider using revenue from a large-scale permanent fund to help the state get through difficult financial times.

Soules said there are billions of dollars in that fund, but leaders in some legislative committees are opposed to tapping into it.

Ferrary said “some of the fear is we’ll deplete that fund,” but she and other lawmakers believe it’s time to use a portion of that revenue.

“It is a rainy day, a stormy day, in New Mexico,” she told attendees.

Diana Alba Soular may be reached at 575-541-5443, dalba@lcsun-news.com or @AlbaSoular on Twitter.

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©2017 the Las Cruces Sun-News (Las Cruces, N.M.)

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