Alibi V.28 No.7 • Feb 14-20, 2019 

New Mexico News

Paying For Success

Financing dominates debate

Dolores Gonzales Elementary School, Albuquerque, N.M.
Dolores Gonzales Elementary School, Albuquerque, N.M.
Eric Williams Photography

You don’t have to tune into the teevee news or pick up the right-of-center daily to get hip to major themes at this year’s Legislature. It’s possible to discover the overarching plots of this year’s 60-day engagement without even relying on social media.

Listen to folks dishing at the local coffee shop, hear the conversations taking place at one’s favorite grocer, the Rail Runner cabin you’re sitting in. Chances are you are hearing about two things: education reform and, specifically, public education financing.

After last week’s stunning defeat of an APS election whose victory would have seen an untimely increase in property taxes traded for improvements to the aging school district’s infrastructure, the issue of public education in New Mexico can be distilled down to a quest for the money necessary to implement reforms without raising taxes—at least that’s the way voters see it.

The intensity of the debate about how to pay for the revitalization so necessary to our state’s public education system is matched in fervor by the discourse about what shape reform should take in order to lift our state from the educational abyss to which it was consigned by La Tejana and her operatives.

As if relevantly linked to the minds of their constituents—for the first time in eight years some would argue—legislative committees met this weekend to discuss the public schools and money, seeking input and looking for a way forward for issues that have dogged New Mexicans for several election cycles.

A Public Election

At the beginning of the month, Albuquerque voters were asked to approve raising about $900 million over the next six years—through a bond measure and two tax levies—to pay for “basic public facility maintenance, replacement of 60-year-old school buildings, providing basic classroom equipment such as furniture, technology and yes, musical instruments ...” That’s according to Kitzio Wijenje, who is the Executive Director of Albuquerque Public Schools Master Plan.

The problem is that the brain trust at APS hadn’t sent feelers out into the community to test for amenability. This lack of probing resulted in a landmark failure. The combination of funding questions, if answered affirmatively, would have resulted in property tax increases in the range of five percent.

In a stuttering New Mexico economy where local homeowners and small businesses are still treading water, where fixed incomes are de rigueur for older property owners, in a time when the former ruling party used the no new taxes slogan to garner political—if not fiscal—support, it’s no wonder the measures failed.

Here, entrenched fiscal conservative didactics and progressive think tank rhetoric like that at the Rio Grande Foundation—who lambasted the proposal, writing that it would have “detrimental effects”—came together with a message that was much more convincing than any of the APS bean-counters could muster. The only issue that remains, of course, is who is going to pay for maintenance improvement and, indeed, a complete re-envisioning of our state’s public education system?

In Rides the Legislature

While the question of providing funding for capital outlay projects in the public education arena remains to be solved within the walls of the APS boardroom or at the merry Roundhouse, the debate over providing funding for improved curricula has reached fever pitch.

On Saturday the state House Commerce and Economic Development committee voted yes on House Joint Resolution 1, ensuring the legislation would be heard on the floor of that same chamber—but not without some pointed dissent.

The resolution, HJR 1, as readers may recall, calls for allocating funds from the state’s Land Grant Permanent Fund—a reservoir of capital that comes from revenue derived from oil and gas leases and royalties as well as subsequent investments—to pay for a major upgrade to New Mexico’s public educational process. That necessary upgrade is called “pre-kindergarten initiatives.” If approved the resolution would result in a statewide ballot to amend our state’s constitution to allow for such programatic funding.

In case you wanna know, social scientists and seasoned educators agree that one way up and out of the miasma our culture finds itself swamped by is to start educating citizens at a very young age, to guarantee that by the time they reach elementary school, they have developed reading, writing and critical thinking skills that will increase their chances for success in today’s world.

The fund is currently valued at over $17.5 billion and already pays for many public education programs as well as funding projects at state community colleges and universities. Projections for fiscal year 2019 show that nearly $750 million is already earmarked for sustaining and improving education in the state. HJR 1 asks that an additional amount of about $150 million per year be set aside annually for our state’s youngest learners.

Those who have come out against the measure, unsurprisingly, are mostly from the New Mexican Coalition of Educational Leaders, a group that represents school board superintendents and public school administrators throughout the state. They believe adding pre-K initiatives to the appropriations formula would destabilize the fund, threatening sustainable school funding down the line.

Reckoning the nay-sayers in this case are of the same culture that spawned the awesomely great idea to get capital outlay funding from what amounts to a middle-class tax increase in Burque, it is reasonable to support the initiative with the belief that better, earlier educational opportunities will result in a plethora of benefits to our state from fewer dropouts to less dependence on welfare and economic growth too.

The next hurdle for this spending bill will likely be in the N.M. Senate, where members of that chamber’s finance committee have already called for the measure’s defeat. Let’s hope that this year, Republicans and Democrats on that key committee are listening to their constituents and not the pie-in-the-sky ideological discourse of school boards and school superintendents that have already proven themselves out of touch with the communities they serve.

After all, someone's gotta pay.