Plaintiffs in historic suit cite new court filing to back up their money demands

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A chart created by Dr. Stephen Barro, who was an expert in education finance for the plaintiffs in the Yazzie-Martinez lawsuit..

Plaintiffs in a historic educational lawsuit on Friday pointed to a new court filing from Judge Sarah Singleton to say that state officials should reverse how they’re funding public education: Instead of seeing how much they have to spend first, they should identify educational needs and then figure out how much they cost.

Singleton’s eight-page order, issued Thursday, comes as the lawsuit’s plaintiffs and allies are in a tug of war with Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and the Legislature over how much new money to earmark for the state’s public schools. A coalition of plaintiffs, teachers, parents, students, district superintendents, bilingual experts and nonprofit organizations want the governor and state lawmakers to dedicate $1 billion in new funding, double what the governor and the Legislature are proposing.   

Singleton’s order is short compared to her ruling last year, which found New Mexico guilty of shirking its constitutional duty to adequately educate at-risk students, but it packs a wallop.

The judge wrote of New Mexico’s school children caught in an “inadequate system” who will “be irreparably harmed if better programs are not instituted,” And that the state’s duty is to “not conserve financial resources at the expense of our constitutional resources.”

Those shortcomings should be addressed “as soon as practicable,” Singleton wrote.

Gail Evans, lead counsel for some of the plaintiffs in the suit represented by the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, said the judge’s language backs up plaintiffs and advocates’ opinion that state officials’ proposals are a first good step but don’t go far enough.

They “only put us back to 2008 levels,” Evans said, repeating a often-heard complaint around the Roundhouse. Advocates and plaintiffs say $400 million to $500 million in new education dollars is merely “backfill” and don’t meet the expectations of transforming the state’s educational system.  

“They might be moving in the right direction but have not arrived to the point where they are meeting their constitutional duty,” Evans said.

Tom Sullivan, a former superintendent at Moriarty-Edgewood school district, said the order confirms another belief held by plaintiffs and allies: The state starts from a dollars-first mentality – what it can pay for – rather than identifying needs around the state and then arriving at a dollar figure, as they believe the judge wants the state to do.

Sullivan, who headed up the New Mexico Superintendents Association until recently, said it’s a familiar, longstanding practice at the Roundhouse: Build the public education budget, then see how to spread the funding around.

“I would say that we’ve been building the state budget backwards in the time I’ve been in Santa Fe, and that’s 20 years,” Sullivan said.

A spokesman for Lujan Grisham disputed the view in an email that half a billion in new education dollars wasn’t enough. Tripp Stelnicki called the governor’s recommendation to direct $500 million in additional funding to public schools “an unprecedented sum for a single fiscal year,” which will “revolutionize the quality of public education in New Mexico.”

“Everyone at the Roundhouse recognizes the need, and the governor’s recommendation is responsible and considered yet thoroughly, thoroughly bold,” he wrote.

The judge’s order is especially timely as a powerful House committee nears completion of a draft state budget that is scheduled for a vote Monday by committee members.

In addition, this week  leaders of the coalition held a press conference to say legislative leaders weren’t doing enough to strengthen three state laws focused on multicultural, bilingual education that are at the core of Singleton’s ruling. They are hoping the state budget will include funding for a series of proposals that would strengthen the three laws – the Bilingual, Indian and Hispanic education acts.

Rep. Tomas Salazar, D-Las Vegas, who is sponsoring several of those bills, said he and others sensed “silence” more than anything from leaders and that he feared being “ignored.”

House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, on Thursday said in response to the criticism there was agreement among legislative leaders on the basic budget framework for public education spending.

The back-and-forth among lawmakers exposed the wrestling going on behind closed doors as state lawmakers navigate political, geographical, racial and ethnic fault lines and lurch toward an agreement to improve education.

In her ruling last year, Singleton noted a plethora of deficiencies in the state’s educational system, which was followed in December with more than 3,000 findings in a 600-page findings of fact. A large population of the state’s public school students qualify for one at-risk factor, according to Singleton. Nearly three of every four come from low-income families. One in seven are English language learners; the same percentage are disabled. One in 10 are Native American.

Singleton has set a date of April 15 to review the plan that emerges from the legislative session to see if it meets the state’s constitutional duty to adequately educate all of its students.