Blistering brief accuses Legislature of shorting public schools

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Wilhelmina Yazzie speaks at the Roundhouse at the start of the 2019 legislative session. Credit / Anthony Jackson New Mexico In Depth

This legislative session, state lawmakers pumped nearly half a billion dollars into New Mexico’s public schools. The plaintiffs in a landmark education funding lawsuit have three words to say to that: 

It wasn’t enough. 

In a scorching court brief filed this morning, the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, which represents the plaintiffs in the Yazzie/Martinez vs. State of New Mexico case, said almost all of the money appropriated by the Legislature is going toward teacher salary increases. That has left little or nothing to expand programs that were specifically promoted by Judge Sarah Singleton as ways to sufficiently and equitably educate low-income, Native American, English language learner students and those with disabilities, said the Center in the brief. 

The plaintiffs say the increase in education funding, when adjusted for inflation, still doesn’t bring the state back to pre-2008 funding levels. 

That puts the state in direct violation, they contend, of the court order that stipulates the state rectify a failure in its constitutional duty to educate children.

Lauren Winkler, staff attorney for the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty

“Unfortunately, the Legislative Finance Committee made financial decisions before education policy could be designed, so that led us to where we are now,” Lauren Winkler, an attorney with the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, told NMID. “The budget was created and after the fact, when you actually talk to districts, it’s clear that many districts are in the red and aren’t able to provide additional programs and services to students.”

At an interim Legislative Education Study Committee this week, lawmakers asked questions about rollout problems for programs like the K-5 Plus extended learning program, which adds 25 days to the school year for elementary schools in low-income areas, and talked about districts cutting positions and programs to meet the mandate for raises. In recent weeks, there have also been reports that demand for full-day preschool has outstripped available dollars for PED programs by about $7 million.

Sen. Mimi Stewart. D-Albuquerque

“I find it hard to believe that after we put $120 million into the at-risk funding, and almost that much into salaries, that districts can’t find the money to do the basic programs that we’re asking them to do,” said Sen. Mimi Stewart, a former educator and Albuquerque Democrat who was the force behind many of the education bills to come out of the 2019 legislative session. 

Stewart characterized problems with expanding programs that target at-risk students such as NM PreK and K-5 Plus as growing pains and called the additional dollars added to education “a first step.”. She said lawmakers from the education and finance committees are already talking about increasing funding for education at next year’s session and she wants to add more flexibility for spending in districts that range from the 175-student school district in Animas and the 95,000-student Albuquerque Public Schools.

“We tried to put the money where we know it makes the biggest difference for students. So, we’ll work out the kinks next year and try to improve upon that,” Stewart said.

In their filing, attorneys for the Yazzie plaintiffs say they met with superintendents and finance staff from all 23 districts represented in the lawsuit about how they are implementing 2019 legislation. 

“It was a common theme throughout those districts that they had to use at-risk funding to supplement the teacher salary increases,” Winkler said “So with that money used, districts were not able to provide social services, they were not able to expand bilingual or dual language programs and were not able to ensure that they were able to get TESOL teachers for English learner students.”

Here’s one example given in  the court filing on implementation of the laws from Santa Fe Public Schools, one of the Yazzie plaintiffs represented by the cCenter:

Santa Fe – Santa Fe Public Schools has an SEG (State Equalization Guarantee) allocation for 2019-20 of a little over $111 million. This amounts to $7.1 million more than last year. However, the mandated teacher salary increases cost $6.7 million, and the increases in the district’s fixed costs (insurance, benefits, etc.) will more than offset the SEG increase, requiring the district to actually have to make cuts to programs that serve at-risk students, such as reading programs and social services. PreK participation will drop from 395 full-day slots to 340 full-day slots.  There is no additional funding for new bilingual, multi-cultural programs. Finally, Santa Fe applied for and received some additional funding for the K-5 Plus and Extended Learning Programs, but because of the short time allowed to apply for these funds this year and because of the difficulty in meeting the programs’ requirements, not all children who would benefit from these programs will be enrolled in the coming year.

“Raises for teachers and support personnel were essential to recruiting and retaining employees,” Rio Rancho Superintendent Sue Cleveland said in a statement. “After satisfying the salary mandate, insufficient funds remained for programs such as Pre-K and for addressing the needs for social workers, dual-language programs, and literacy specialists. We continue to run a deficit of $800,000 for transportation, diverting funds away from the classroom.  Positive gains have been made, but there is still work to be done.”

The Center characterized the steps taken by the Legislature as an “old mode of operation” which maintains a patchwork system of education and inadequate funding.  And it says most of the proposals supported by the plaintiffs’ coalition, Transform Education, were “blocked by legislative leaders and died in committees.”

The plaintiffs are working with the Public Education Department on a compliance plan and have a session scheduled for Monday. Because they’re working with the PED, they say in the brief, they aren’t asking in this filing for the court to take action.

You can read the brief below

Notice Yazzie Plaintiffs 2019-06-28 by Sylvia Ulloa on Scribd