Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Hanna Plays Hardball In School Funding Dispute; Is The System Really Being "Gamed?" Plus: Susana's Shopping; Local Enough? And? My Bottom Lines 

It's hardball from education chief Hanna Skandera and the Guv in response to a recent snafu over school funding. They are trying to regain the offensive and pointing their fingers at the school districts, saying that a larger than expected shortfall in school funding could be the result of some districts "gaming" the system.

The stakes are high as one of Governor Martinez's central campaign pledges was to only cut administrative excess, not classroom funding. But her foes are now saying the extra $20 million in cuts that are needed means classrooms will indeed suffer cuts. Susana says the unexpected shortfall can still be resolved by administrative cuts.

Causing the budget crunch is the increased money needed for a higher number of special education students than anticipated and higher salaries for teachers who have taken advanced training.

Skandera and the Guv had the fingers pointed at them when shortly after the legislative session they dropped their bombshell that the legislature had not cut enough money from the schools. Superintendents and lawmakers said Skandera should have alerted them to the new numbers while legislators were meeting. Others ask where were the legislators? Schools now face a cut of 3.4 percent, not the 1.5 percent approved in the state budget. But the administration says the real issue is the way the districts are counting. From Skandera:

The New Mexico Public Education Department (NMPED) sent a memo to the state’s 89 school districts and local school authorities on Tuesday outlining the audit process currently underway....
“....It’s about transparency and fairness.” said Secretary-Designate Hanna Skandera. “Fraud and abuse of the state’s funding system will not be tolerated.....Gaming the system in one district means fewer dollars for well-deserving students in another.”

....Districts receive a determined amount of money based on the number of students....Last week, NMPED discovered unusual spikes in the areas of Special Education and Teacher Training and Experience....Special Education students and their funding units are the most expensive in the funding formula....

This is a notable escalation of the warfare between the administration and the school bureaucracy (and unions) which started when Susana in her first state-of-the-state speech singled out the ABQ Public schools for wasteful administrative spending.

Improving the state's low education rankings would be a major political plum for Martinez, giving her high-powered ammo when she goes before the voters again. Failure would also have major political consequences.

Is there really some "gaming" of the educational system, or is this like those charges about illegal aliens voting in New Mexico, with no one able to show the proof? Looks like we're about to find out.


Reader Denis Norlander writes of the education funding snafu and reminds us of a blast from the past:

Whenever I read about school budgets, I recall Harry Wugalter, who was NM Chief of Public School Finance in the late 60s into the 70s. He approved each district's budget in the spring, with his small staff keeping track of every nickel. Big changes had to be approved by him throughout the year. I don't remember him questioning programs a district was supporting, just the figures.

Preparing for your budget hearing with him was like expecting a visit from the Inquisitor General. But no one could have embezzled $3 million from any district under his watch and there was no confusion over the formula figures. There are others in the state who would remember him better than I do but a then and now comparison might be interesting!

Thanks, Denis. Your mail had us looking for more info and we came up with what appears to be a very good book about the history of NM education. It's called Public Education in New Mexico and covers all 400 years of our settled history. It was written by educators Ernest Stapleton and John Mondragon and published in 2005.

Some of the book was posted on the site that we linked too here and there are some anecdotes about Wugalter and other education heavy hitters. It looks like must reading for state policy makers and others interested in how we got where we are today.

Judge Murphy
The New Mexico Supreme Court slowed down what was looking like a runaway train in the case of Las Cruces District Judge Michael Murphy. They denied a request from the state Judicial Standards Commission that Murphy be suspended while Special Prosecutor Matt Chandler investigates allegations that Murphy paid a bribe--in the form of campaign contributions--to win his appointment to the bench from the Richardson administration.

The high court looked at all the sealed evidence and decided a suspension was not merited. This follows a series of press leaks describing that evidence and which we debated on the blog the past week. Murphy's attorney said of the high court ruling:

Unjust and improperly leaked information will not change Judge Murphy's determination to dispense justice in his job..

The Supremes didn't give a reason for not suspending Murphy, but you can speculate that if they saw something particularly egregious they would have told him to stay home for a while. Or maybe they just don't want to prejudice the case by throwing gasoline on the fire. To be continued...


Governor Martinez recently boasted of being a savvy shopper, describing how she picked up most of the furnishings for the Governor's Mansion at Ashley Furniture in Las Cruces, a national discount store. But that decision did not go down well with everyone, including Vicki Pozzebon, executive director of the Santa Fe Alliance:

As the director of a nonprofit that helps build a local economy and as a supporter of Sen. Wirth's longtime fight to close corporate tax loopholes, I'm thinking of starting a "Why Didn't She Buy Local" campaign to outline the impacts on our local economy of her shopping choices.

We use the statistic that 45 cents of every dollar spent at locally owned stores in our community multiplies up to 4x in our local tax base. Only 13 cents stays in our community when a dollar is spent at a big box store. If she wants to help NM businesses she needs to understand that her choices have serious impact. Think Local First!

Ashley is a franchise operation and if the franchisees are New Mexico residents it gives them more of a connection to local communities than other "big box" stores. Ashley Furniture in Las Cruces was described by the Guv as "locally owned."


But where did Susana get the money to buy $26,000 worth of furniture? She says her total budget was $62,000. We get this email inquiry on that:

Joe, I have never known of a governor receiving money from the state to furnish the private portion of the governor's mansion. It is my understanding that until Kathy Carruthers (wife of former GOP Gov. Garrey Carruthers) got a governor's Mansion Foundation established, governors paid for all the furniture in the house. I wonder where Susana found the money?

I remember the Johnson's (Gov. Gary and wife Dee) paying to furnish the new guest quarters and then donating the furniture when they left. As I recall, the Richardsons donated all the furnishings in the residential portion of the mansion when they left because their private home in SFe already was furnished. I can understand the Martinezs wanting new furniture because Bill's big cigars permeated everything.

We asked Guv spokesman Scott Darnell where the specific funding for the furniture came from but haven't heard back yet.


We had a typo up for a while Tuesday that made it appear Heather Wilson had defeated Steve Pearce in the 2008 GOP US Senate primary. A lot of readers pointed that out. Heather was not among them....We pegged ABQ GOP City Councilor Brad Winter's age at about 57 on the Tuesday blog. Actually, he will turn 59 on April 22....Need a break from La Politica? Here's the place for all your New Mexico golf news....

Lt. Governor John Sanchez is still
sounding like he will be a candidate but when will he announce he will challenge Heather Wilson for the GOP Senate nomination? "It's still 14 months before the primary," said Sanchez when asked this week if he is coming in. We blogged that a Sanchez entry could be expected by the end of the month, but it could be longer. He is the only serious anti-Heather candidate around and can pace himself....

The Republican Party of Bernalillo County will host its "Reagan Legacy Dinner" featuring former GOP US Senator Harrison "Jack" Schmitt as speaker this Saturday, April 16th, at the ABQ Embassy Suites Hotel. Tickets are $60 each with info here.

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