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          Front Page

Gov., APS Spar Over Budget

By Hailey Heinz
Copyright © 2011 Albuquerque Journal
Journal Staff Writer

          Even before Gov. Susana Martinez took a swipe at Albuquerque Public Schools in her State of the State address, she had already made it clear the APS budget was in her cross hairs.
        At various times since taking office, Martinez has publicly criticized APS for spending too much on communications, for Superintendent Winston Brooks' travel and for what she calls an unwillingness to keep cuts away from the classroom.
        Brooks, meanwhile, has been openly critical of some moves by Martinez's public education secretary.
        Tension between Martinez and APS mounted last week after the governor said in a KOAT-TV interview Tuesday that if APS was having a tough time keeping cuts out of the classroom it should put its budget on the Internet.
        "Put it online," Martinez said. "Put a detailed budget online so everybody can see, and we'll find where to cut."
        Brooks, in an interview last week said he was "bewildered" by the governor's attacks and said he had a good rapport with her during the campaign.
        Much of APS' financial information is already online, including a copy of this year's budget in the same format that was submitted to the Public Education Department for approval. Monthly cash disbursements — essentially, the district's checkbook — and information about broad spending categories are also available.
        Martinez said what's missing is a budget with line-by-line detail. While the online documents show the budgets and number of employees for each school and department, they don't break down the exact spending.
        "When you lump together big categories like support services and general administration and schools, what does that mean? Is that one principal and four assistant principals? How many secretaries and administrative assistants? That's the breakdown that is needed, not these big categories," Martinez said in a Friday interview.
        Martinez has also taken aim at APS' communications department, which has eight employees in charge of media, the APS website and internal communications. Total salaries for the department exceed $400,000 and the director makes about $106,000.
        Brooks said he won't ask his top administrators to take pay cuts, nor will he take one himself. He said such cuts would not create real savings.
        "I don't think this cutting our budget is about symbolism," Brooks said. "I think it's about trying to come up with real dollars."
        Martinez set a salary cap of $125,000 for her cabinet secretaries, which in some cases was substantially lower than their predecessors'. She also says she expects the state's Public Education Department, which reports to her, to cut its budget by 20 percent.
        Brooks said he does not know what Martinez's standard is for the size of a communications department, but a national report by the Council of the Great City Schools placed APS in the low to middle range of large, urban districts for size and cost.
        By way of comparison, Las Cruces' enrollment is about 25,000 compared with APS' 90,000, and it has a communications staff of four to APS' eight. That does not include a webmaster position, which is vacant, but does include staff members who produce Las Cruces Public Schools television. Total salaries in the department cost $215,476 annually.
        Although Martinez has publicly mentioned only APS, she said spending on communications and lobbying should be scrutinized as all districts prepare their budgets.
        She said her criticisms have focused on APS, because the district was the most vocal in its opposition to her budget proposal.
        "Superintendent Brooks immediately said there was no way to cut, which means they were unwilling to thoroughly examine the administrative part of the budget," Martinez said. Her state budget proposal calls for a 1.5 percent cut to school districts, and she has directed districts to make those cuts in central and school-based administration.
        The proposed administration cuts were slightly less than lawmakers have proposed.
        APS has pointed out that the 1.5 percent cut is only one piece of their financial puzzle, since the district has fixed costs that increase every year, including utility costs and teachers moving up through the three-tier licensure system.
        The district also trimmed $43 million from last year's budget, which officials say leaves them without any easy cuts to make.
        The district's current budget plan, which is tentative, calls for a 12.8 percent cut to all non-classroom departments, and roughly a 5 percent cut to direct instruction.
        Martinez has also said publicly that she tried twice to set up a meeting with Brooks, and that both times he was outside New Mexico.
        Brooks confirmed he was gone both times, but said the meetings were requested on short notice and that he tried to set up a meeting as soon as he returned. He also wrote a letter dated Feb. 17 in which he requested a meeting.
        Brooks sent a second letter Thursday, and a meeting is now scheduled for this week.
        The first time Martinez wanted to meet, Brooks was in San Francisco for the Council of Great City Schools. The second time, he was in Denver working as a corporate consultant.
        There have been tensions over more than budget.
        Brooks openly questioned the value and credentials of out-of-state consultants hired on short-term contracts by Martinez's appointee to head the Public Education Department.
        "As someone who has practiced education for 38 years, I disagree that this group brings a wealth of education experience to the state, when in fact I don't think any of them have actually practiced education," he said.
        PED Secretary designate Hanna Skandera said she was saving money by entering into consulting agreements instead of filling vacant positions, and she said it would give her input while allowing her time to make permanent appointments.

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