Questions surround ruling on New Mexico education funding

apl072318a/ASECTION/pierre-louis/JOURNAL/072318 Lauren Winkler,,cq>, attorney at the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty speaks at a press conference on the last Friday's judge's ruling New Mexico failure to provide students a sufficient public education. At right is Veronica Garcia,, superintendent of Santa Fe Public Schools .Photographed on Monday July 23, 2018. . Adolphe Pierre-Louis/JOURNAL
Shelby Perea and Dan Boyd
Tuesday, July 24th, 2018

A judge’s ruling that New Mexico has not been meeting its constitutional obligation to provide a sufficient education for all students — especially those characterized as at-risk — continued to reverberate Monday, with plaintiffs in the landmark lawsuit hailing it as a harbinger of a fairer K-12 system.

But the Public Education Department told the Journal the state plans to appeal.

“Unfortunately the judge missed the boat with this ruling,” PED Secretary-designate Christopher Ruszkowski wrote in a statement, citing increases in education spending that he said “is now at an all-time high.”

That spending was also highlighted by some lawmakers, who voiced concern about how the Legislature will comply with the judge’s ruling in a state that already spends 44 percent of its budget, or roughly $2.8 billion for the current fiscal year, on public schools.

“We have no direction from the courts other than ‘fix it,’ ” said Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.

He also said lawmakers should consider accountability measures as part of any plan, and not just pump more money into a state funding formula that divvies up education dollars to the state’s 89 school districts based on enrollment, student demographics and other factors.

“Public school districts that are applauding that they’re going to get more funding can expect to have their budgets scrutinized,” Smith told the Journal.

District Judge Sarah Singleton’s decision says that the state must come up with a plan by April to meet certain deficiencies identified by the court.

PED has until mid-August to officially file an appeal.

At a news conference Monday at Washington Middle School Park in Albuquerque, plaintiffs in the case, in which two lawsuits were consolidated into one, praised the judge’s ruling.

Santa Fe Public Schools Superintendent Veronica Garcia, a former Cabinet secretary of the Public Education Department, said the case addresses basic classroom needs, such as textbooks and teacher salaries, adding that schools aren’t asking for “bells and whistles.”

“I feel somewhat saddened by the generations lost,” she said. “It’s about damn time we do what’s right for our kids.”

Lauren Winkler, an attorney for one of the plaintiffs in the case, the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, said the state has nine months to do “what it has been required to do all along.”

“The state has been starving its public schools,” she said.

Meanwhile, Ernest Herrera, an attorney with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the other organization involved in the case, stressed it was not just about money, but also about the necessity for a monitoring system to ensure the state is meeting its constitutional responsibility to students.

The judge has maintained jurisdiction over the case, meaning Singleton will determine whether the reformed system is up to standard. There could be fines or other penalties if the state doesn’t meet requirements.

Teacher pay

Although Singleton did not stipulate how much money the state should spend to ensure all students get an adequate education, the ruling’s budgetary implications could be a major topic of debate during next year’s 60-day legislative session.

Sen. Gay Kernan, R-Hobbs, a retired schoolteacher, said Monday that it would be a mistake to scrap the state’s current funding formula.

But she said she would support paying more money to teachers and overhauling the state’s teacher evaluation system.

“We’ve lost some excellent teachers because of that,” she said.