Tuesday, February 07, 2017

Punishing The Public Schools; Budget Cuts Unpopular With Voters But Still It Goes On And On; Guv And Lawmakers Say Classroom Is Spared But Major Pushback Develops 

It may be becoming routine in Santa Fe to cut the budgets of the state's public schools but it's not going well outside of the Roundhouse bubble. The legislature and the Governor know that. They have seen the public polling that shows slashing the schools is the last place voters want cut to resolve the budget debacle.

But as we noted on our Monday blog Dems and R's alike have taken out the scalpel and like a surgeon seeking to calm his patient they insist none of this budget cutting is going to hurt. Everything in the classroom will be just fine So they say, but. . . .

We are getting a far different story from the schools and our readers. And it's not just from APS which for years has endured a near-hatred by the newspaper and the sitting Governor. From Las Cruces:

Las Cruces Public Schools is still trying to recover from last year's special session that cut $3.4 million from the district. LCPS has already cut back on instructional materials, traveling and bus routes to save money. That was done on top of an additional $3.5 million budget cut to the current fiscal year. A spokeswoman for the district said half of the district’s savings account is gone and the district can’t afford to hire new teachers. "It has a huge impact on the whole system and bottom line is it impacts classrooms. Anytime you have a cut as big as that, there's going to be a trickle down affect throughout the whole system." Less money in the school’s reserves could mean more students per classroom. 

The governor said her bill wouldn't have an impact on classroom spending. “This compromise represents responsible cuts that preserve classroom spending and maintain the quality of district programs for students and staff alike,” Martinez said.  KFOX14 asked the governor to elaborate why she isn’t concerned for schools in the state, but she wouldn’t answer the question. 


Dem State Senator Bill Soules who represents the Las Cruces area and was taken to task here Monday for the school cuts, counters:

Remember Joe, the Governor proposed $120 million in cuts for the current budget year. The legislature reduced that by nearly two-thirds and it was impossible for the legislature to raise more revenue in the last few months of the current budget year. to prevent the cuts. 

The cuts passed to date are definitely detrimental to NM students. Whether my bill providing flexibility for Districts on how to handle the impact of those cuts moves forward or not, those cuts are sure to hurt NM students. Districts need flexibility so those locally elected School Boards can be sure their credit ratings don’t drop and decisions on how best to handle those cuts can be made by officials accountable to their communities rather than appointed PED staff in Santa Fe.  

I am one of the legislature’s biggest champions of fully funding NM schools. I sponsored SB 35 calling for $368.5 million more funding in 2018. NM students should face no cuts in the 2018 budget! My fellow legislative Democrats are putting forth many revenue bills this session to make more funds available for a budget that does not hurt opportunities for NM student success.

But reader Barry Simon says the Democrats have been too passive in seeking to protect the public schools:

Joe, State Auditor Tim Keller says there is $2 billion in unused funding sitting in departments and agencies’ accounts. And yet the Dems are ready to cut school funding, not to mention services? Where is their outrage that money is just sitting in accounts unused? Where is Tim Keller’s voice since he’s the one going around doing presentations on this information? And where are the school districts and teachers’ union? They’re too busy talking about testing and evaluations to take their heads out of the sand and yell about unused billions of dollars. I just don’t get it and it frustrates the hell our of me. 

I have called my State Senator and Keller’s office. Response: nada. I even had a letter published in the Journal on this hidden-in-plain-sight money and there wasn’t one ripple in response. I’m going to a public meeting of my school board representative on Thursday and ask why APS isn’t screaming about cuts when there is money just sitting there. As Keller’s presentation states, “The Myth of Scarcity.”


Sen. Brandt
APS is making noise, Barry, if not screaming. But you're right--where is the outrage? The favorite excuse at the Capitol is for both sides to simply throw their arms in the air and exclaim, "We're broke!" That's not how it used to be as this retired Dem state senator who asked to remain anonymous, explains:

Joe, There are no "firebrands" in the Democratic Legislature. Few legislators have the  "fire in the belly" mentality that had always been pervasive in a vibrant New Mexico. During my tenure of 20 years in the New Mexico Senate, I heard magnificent speeches, fearless statements to do what was right. Legislators who took on the good fight. They were not there to just "get elected." Today we have passive representation that accounts for the "just being there" attitude. In my day, we would have dismissed the idea of "less education because of the budget." Instead, we would have done what was right.

And that's not just nostalgia although there are a few speaking out about the historic public schools budget cutting--GOP state Senator Craig Brandt for one

Brandt, R-Rio Rancho, said the state went too far in cutting funding to school districts this year. He noted that his wife is a teacher. “We have created a nightmare,” he said.

And, as reader Simon wondered, are the teachers unions and their leadership doing enough or have they become numbed by it all? John Dyrcz of the American Federation of Teachers NM comments on that bill that would lay down guidelines for shortening school days as well as the school year:

Regarding Senate Bill 290,  it is not accurate to state teachers' unions (at least in the case of American Federation of Teachers New Mexico) in any way supported this measure. In fact, we stood in opposition to it when it was first introduced, which led to it to include protections for workers under collective bargaining. We also opposed the bill even after it was amended to include protections for workers because it did not go far enough to ensure decisions would not adversely impact schools and educational workers. 

Focusing on SB 290 is perhaps misguided, and we in the education community would prefer to continue having the conversation about how we got to this point in education funding, and that issue falls squarely on the shoulders of Governor Martinez with her willingness to attempt a $120 million sweep of school funding and simultaneous clinging to rigid ideological opposition to identifying and raising new sources of revenue.

Dyrcz has the politics right. The last thing the Dems should be doing is shifting the narrative to a bill that centers on shortening the school year when they should be arguing that it is the Governor's stubbornness that could lead to schools shutting down early.


Finally on the education beat, more on the implications of all these cuts on the state's bond rating and standing on Wall Street from David Jacobson, VP for communications for Moody's Investors Service:

In its new Credit Outlook released Monday Moody’s notes the governor of New Mexico (bonds rated Aa1/negative outlook) has signed legislation that calls for a sweep of $46.1 million in operating cash balances, or an effective 2% reduction in state aid to school districts. . . and follows cuts approved in a special legislative session in 2016. The cash balance sweep and October cuts are credit negative and affect all New Mexico’s school districts, weakening already-limited financial positions. Based on our estimates. . . 10 districts will have less than 2% of revenues in reserve.

New Mexico school districts are not well positioned to weather funding declines, with virtually no revenue-raising capacity and limited expenditure flexibility. . . Although the state’s school districts may not be facing immediate default risk, any further deterioration in cash and reserve positions present a serious challenge to ongoing credit quality. 

Folks, we've told you before and we'll tell you again. Before this incredible era in our state's history is over you're going to keep seeing things you never thought possible. Like the trashing of the state's financial standing under the supposedly conservative leadership of a Republican Governor and Blue Dog Democrats and perhaps even a shutdown of the public school system.

Mr. and Mrs. New Mexico don't need to see any more budget books. They need prayer books to get out of this mess.

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