Education committees hear budget proposals, including potential teacher pay raise

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There is only a $400,000 difference between what the governor’s office and the Legislature’s budget arm are requesting for the main category of public school funding (that’s the State Equalization Guarantee, or SEG funding, for you education wonks), but there are some interesting departures in the details. 

If you are a teacher, you are going to be really interested in those differences.

Education Secretary-designate Christopher Ruszkowski and analysts from the Legislative Finance Committee and the Public Education Department came before a joint meeting of the Senate and House Education committees on Friday to detail their budget proposals for fiscal 2019.

For teachers just starting out or who just reached a new teacher level, there could be a $2,000 salary bump in your future if the LFC gets its way, plus a 1.5 percent cost of living salary increase.

If the PED plan prevails in negotiations, all teachers will receive a 2 percent across the board salary increase, with other school personnel receiving a 1 percent cost of living increase. Then, exemplary teachers would be up for a one-time $5,000 bonus and exemplary high school math or science teachers would be eligible for up to $10,000. About 4 percent of teachers in New Mexico are rated as exemplary, Ruszkowski said.

Bumping salary base up

The LFC aims to raise teachers’ base salaries across the board by $2,000. That would make the base salary for Level 1, or beginning, teachers $36,000, for Level 2, $44,000, and for the most experienced and educated, Level 3, $54,000.

If teachers are already earning those new base salaries, they would not get a raise, but would still get the 1.5 percent cost of living increase. But those earning less than the new base salary today would get bumped up and also receive the cost of living increase. 

Sen. Mimi Stewart, the newly elected Senate majority whip, said not every teacher would get the $2,000; only those being paid less would be brought up to the new levels. Teacher pay is “all over the map” from district to district across the state. She said districts would adjust wages at the local level. “They can do that internally, and we write the bill so that they can do that,” she said.

There was some concern from a couple of legislators, including Sen. Craig Brandt, R-Rio Rancho, that the LFC wasn’t seeking enough money to pay for the base salary and cost of living hikes. And Sen. Michael Padilla, D-Albuquerque, wondered whether there was money being set aside to recruit and retain teachers in hard-to-staff schools. A fund for that is only included in the PED’s budget request.

Give us our money back!

Both the governor’s office and legislature are planning to spend more money on education this year, with each asking for at least $2.5 billion for K-12. But that comes after two years of belt tightening, including sweeping $46 million of reserve funds from districts around the state, something that several legislators and members of the public brought up.

Sen. Bill Soules, D-Las Cruces, who chaired the joint meeting, asked “are there any plans for making whole the cash balances that we swept out of districts last year?”

Short answer: No.

That didn’t set well with some committee members and the public.

The superintendent of Artesia Public Schools was perhaps the most plaintive. His district lost $547,961 in last year’s budget crisis. He knew the figure to the dollar. With declining enrollment and other rising costs, he said his district was on track to be $1.4 million in the hole.

“That’s why I needed my cash balance,” Artesia Superintendent Crit Caton said. “So I would hope that the Legislature would consider paying back those districts that are in crisis mode. So that we could open the doors, so that we could maybe hire 10 teaches with the half a million dollars I would receive. It’s the right thing to do.”

There was a lot of talk during the meeting about rising “fixed expenses,” transportation and instructional materials that were outpacing even what the Legislature and Governor’s office were seeking.  

“There’s huge transportation deficiencies within the state,” said Brandt. Many bus contractors  are pulling out of the state and buses aren’t being replaced. Districts like his own Rio Rancho, which run their bus systems, were having to subsidize transportation through operating dollars. Though the state is asking for more than $91 million for transportation, “I’m not sure it’s really the actual costs.”

According to Stan Rounds, executive director of the New Mexico Coalition of Education Leaders, just two districts, Rio Rancho and Las Cruces Public Schools, were short $2.5 million in transportation.

And Stewart brought up the problem that the budgets were pulling money from the school building fund to pay for buses and books, rather than for its original intent: building and maintaining schools.

There was a $9 million difference in money set aside for transportation and instruction materials between the LFC and the executive that comes from the school building fund, $16 million and $25 million, respectively. And while that was worrying, she believed the money set aside for those two needs was still not enough.

“We haven’t funded instructional materials adequately for 10 years. We haven’t funded transportation adequately for 5 or 6 years,” she said. “Until we find more funding in this state for education, none of the things we want to happen are going to happen.”

Still, the bottom line is that there will be more money for schools this year. The LFC budget proposal adds at least $50 million, according to the analysts, and the executive adds $70 million. And one of the reasons for that difference is that the governor’s office was expecting more revenue than the Legislative Finance Committee believed they had to work with.

Nina Kronk, analyst with the PED, said a new revenue projection would be out during the session so that legislators could use it when making decisions, and it was likely that the final increases for schools would be closer to the governor’s number.

Ruszkowski said the PED budget reflected the needs expressed by school districts, educators and parents, especially in the increases in for transportation, instructional materials and school safety, which he said accounted for about $60 million of the $70 million in additional money for schools.

“I would just love to leave you with the thought that ‘we’re listening,’” Ruszkowski said. “We’re traveling the state, we’re visiting schools, we’re hearing your feedback and I hope that you continue to see that we’re listening to teachers, and parents and all 89 school districts. …  Our ear is to the ground.”

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