Educators seek budget solutions

CNJ staff photo: Liliana Castillo Rep. Dennis Roch talked about the New Mexico Legislative Education Study Committee and its plans for education at the meeting Saturday.

Liliana Castillo

State budget concerns had eastern New Mexico educators huddled in Portales on Saturday to try and come up with a game plan to avoid job cuts and unpaid furloughs for teachers.

Over 50 district superintendents and school board members — the Eastern New Mexico Educational Research Council — gathered at Portales High School to discuss the upcoming legislative session, beginning in January, and what the state may do to education funding.

Superintendents reported hearing a 5 percent cut will be handed down, which doesn’t sound bad, but Texico Superintendent R.L. Richards said it’s much worse in reality.

“We’ve already been cut 10 percent by the state but we’ve been propped up by federal money,” Richards explained. “And that federal money is going to stop, probably this year. So if we get cut 5 percent, it’s really 15 percent.”

Richards said most district’s budgets are 88 percent salaries and benefits.

“So when you cut that deep, it starts to mean people,” he said.

Richards and Regional Education Center Director Patti Harrelson organized the meeting. Harrelson said she was glad that so many gave up their Saturday morning.

Discussion centered around what the legislature will do but also focused on what board members and superintendents can do.

Clovis Superintendent Terry Myers said he thought it wise to offer incoming governor Susana Martinez and her team an olive branch.

“Let’s not just say we need more money. Let’s offer solutions,” he said.

Several superintendents spoke offering their ideas as how to survive the budget crunch. Among the suggestions was voluntary furloughs, because districts cannot legally decrease teachers’ pay, a moratorium on mandated salaries, relief from funding restrictions, changing the number of school days, cutting extracurricular activities such as junior high sports or the number of games in a high school season.

Portales Superintendent Randy Fowler said most of the things that would save districts from cutting people and programs require the Legislature’s help.

“You as boards and local districts don’t have a lot of options,” Fowler said. “The revenue is not there. We do have to make cuts. We have some difficult decisions coming up.”

Sen. Stuart Ingle, R-Portales, said it was a mistake to put non-recurring funds in recurring funds like education because it will stop, and it will probably stop this year.

“Every state in this union is having a tough time. We’re going to have a serious 60 days. We’ve got some things we have to take care of,” Ingle said.

Rep. Dennis Roch, R-Texico, said the New Mexico Legislative Education Study Committee has considered combining the higher education and the public education departments.

“Essential services like education and public safety have to be funded first,” he said.

Floyd Superintendent Paul Benoit introduced a resolution in support of rural education. The resolution called for the public schools’ portion of the general fund to return to 50 percent and increased representation from New Mexico’s rural school districts on any task force related to school restructuring and program recommendation.

Richards said the meeting had been planned for three months for after the election so that districts would have a better idea of what was ahead.

Myers said he found the meeting to be helpful.

“I’m glad we had everybody and we got to hear the state everybody is in,” he said. “We’ve identified some common ground.”

Myers said, “We can do without stuff, but not without people to teach. We will explore every option before we cut people.”

Clovis school board member Rodney Muffley said board members should talk to legislators.

“This opened my eyes up a little more. This is all around, it’s not just one district or the other,” he said.

Muffley said he liked hearing different ideas from different people.

“Coming together is the only way we’re ever going to get there,” Myers said.

Myers said the superintendents will be attending the legislative session in turn to answer any questions the legislators may have.

Fowler said the discussion was important.

“We need to get the issues out there to find out what things will work,” he said. “We all understand the revenue issues, we just need to find out how to manage best for students.”