Last-ditch effort aims to pay back NM school districts $40M

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New Mexico Legislature

Rep. James Townsend, R-Artesia.

Is it possible to sneak $41 million into New Mexico’s budget — even after the House has already sent its version over to the Senate? School district leaders are sure going to try.

The House Appropriations Committee heard impassioned pleas Wednesday from the Republican sponsor of a bill to pay back public school districts whose cash reserves were taken by the state to plug a gaping hole in the fiscal 2017 budget.

Superintendents and school board members from all corners of New Mexico and Albuquerque traveled to the state capitol to show their support for the measure. The effort got a late start because of an unexpected increase of “new money” that was forecast Jan. 25 that gave lawmakers an extra $93.3 million to spend.

“I just think that in a year of plenty like we are in right now, with $250 million, give or take, I can not for the life of me figure out why everyone sitting here in our chambers would not support education,” said Rep. James Townsend, R-Artesia.

He said 47 members of the 70-member House had signed on to HB 141, which would make a one-time appropriation of $40.8 million to districts to shore up their reserve funds, which are used to pay large yearly expenses, make up for fluctuating enrollment and extras such as stipends for teachers who take children to science camps.

“The Artesia Public Schools were swept $547,961.42. That wasn’t swept from my school board. That wasn’t swept from me. That was swept from my kids. And I think you realize that. It was painful for each of you to do that and I understand that,” said Crit Caton, superintendent of the Artesia schools. “Today we have the opportunity to pay back our kids.”

Caton put the money his district surrendered to the state in this context: It would pay for 10 teachers to lower class sizes, or pay for his entire bilingual program for a year, or it would pay for all of his federal programs.

Townsend noted a report from Moody’s that said the state needed a 10 percent cash reserve to weather a financial downturn, but the Public Education Department was asking school districts to make due with just 3 to 5 percent.

New Mexico Legislature

Rep. Patricia Lundstrom, D-Gallup, chairwoman of the House Appropriations and Finance Committee.

The arguments held sway with Chairwoman Patricia Lundstrom, D-Gallup, but she said the effort was just too late in the budgeting process. Especially since her own committee had passed its budget and the House had voted on it that day.

“I can’t send a bill out of here that is going to cost almost $41 million when it’s not in the budget. Hell, we don’t let a $250,000 bill out of this committee cause it wasn’t in the budget,” she said.

The committee voted against the bill, 7-9, on a party line vote. But Lundstrom left out hope for proponents. After the do-pass motion failed, she asked the committee to temporarily table the bill so that explore options. “Let me think about this.”

Stan Rounds, executive director of the New Mexico Coalition of Education Leaders and the School Superintendents’ Association, said action and fierce lobbying now turns to the Senate Finance Committee, which would have the power to add money into the House-passed budget to make the school districts whole. He said there was about $10 million that the Public Education Committee was likely to revert back to the general fund this year. And, he believed some money could be taken from the state reserve fund to add to the school districts’ reserve funds.

“When they took that cash balance, the eliminated the flexibility that is a large part of managing school budgets,” said Rounds, the former Las Cruces Public Schools superintendent. “Any movement toward that ($40 million) is good.”