Fewer stu­dents may mean less money

Su­per­in­ten­dents ask state for help to shore up bud­gets in face of de­clin­ing en­roll­ment

Santa Fe New Mexican - - FRONT PAGE - By James Bar­ron jbar­ron@sfnewmex­i­can.com

G. An­drés Romero heard and un­der­stood the con­cerns ex­pressed by pub­lic school dis­trict su­per­in­ten­dents from across the state be­cause he saw the prob­lem, too.

There was a com­mon theme to the su­per­in­ten­dents’ wor­ries, re­gard­less of the size of their dis­tricts, voiced dur­ing a Leg­isla­tive Ed­u­ca­tion Study Com­mit­tee ses­sion Wed­nes­day morn­ing. They ex­pressed se­ri­ous reser­va­tions about what their bud­gets will look like for the 2021-22 school year based on fund­ing for­mu­las leg­is­la­tors have in place, and they need their help to fix the prob­lem. Su­per­in­ten­dents from school dis­tricts in Lo­gan, Tu­larosa, Des Moines, Las Cruces, Al­bu­querque and Rio Ran­cho pre­sented data that showed sig­nif­i­cant de­clines in stu­dent en­roll­ment for the 2020-21 school year, driven by the coro­n­avirus pan­demic. That could lead to de­cid­edly smaller bud­gets for next year be­cause they are based on cur­rent en­roll­ment fig­ures.

Romero, a Demo­cratic state rep­re­sen­ta­tive from Al­bu­querque who also chairs the House’s Ed­u­ca­tion Com­mit­tee, said that isn’t the only prob­lem. There is an ex­pec­ta­tion that the

ex­o­dus of pub­lic school stu­dents is only tem­po­rary. If they re­turn to school next fall, it would ex­ac­er­bate the im­pact of the im­pend­ing bud­get crunch.

Romero rec­og­nizes there is a need to of­fer schools re­lief from a per­fect storm of un­fore­seen cir­cum­stances.

“There is a lot of un­der­stand­ing and agree­ment that we need to do some­thing to help the school dis­tricts and hold them harm­less from this school year,” said Romero, who is a teacher at Atrisco Her­itage Acad­emy High School.

State Pub­lic Ed­u­ca­tion Sec­re­tary Ryan Ste­wart said in a state­ment he has heard sim­i­lar de­tails from su­per­in­ten­dents and ad­min­is­tra­tors from around the state, and the depart­ment is com­mit­ted to act­ing on their be­half.

“Based on the data and ob­served im­pact, we will work with the Gov­er­nor’s Of­fice on any needed leg­is­la­tion to en­sure that these im­pacts are ap­pro­pri­ately ac­counted for when pre­par­ing school bud­gets for next year,” Ste­wart said.

The phrase “hold harm­less” was used fre­quently by school of­fi­cials dur­ing the ses­sion as they sought the phrase’s in­clu­sion by leg­is­la­tors in next year’s gen­eral ap­pro­pri­a­tion bill so the state can de­ter­mine fund­ing based on 2019-20 en­roll­ment fig­ures if they are higher than the cur­rent ones.

Al­bu­querque Pub­lic Schools Su­per­in­ten­dent Scott El­der said his dis­trict ex­pects about a 4,000-stu­dent drop com­pared to last year, much of which he at­tributes to par­ents choos­ing home-school­ing or pri­vate school op­tions. The loss in rev­enue would be equal to los­ing 150 full-time em­ploy­ees, and APS could see a $36 mil­lion de­crease in state fund­ing based on en­roll­ment fig­ures.

Rio Ran­cho Pub­lic Schools had an en­roll­ment de­cline of 789 stu­dents to 16,904. Las Cruces Pub­lic Schools re­ported 24,201 stu­dents reg­is­tered on its rolls this year com­pared to 24,806 in 2019-20.

Den­nis Roch, pres­i­dent of the New Mex­ico School Su­per­in­ten­dents As­so­ci­a­tion, said many school dis­tricts along the state’s bor­ders are see­ing stu­dents leave to go to out-of-state schools be­cause they have in-per­son ed­u­ca­tion and other ex­tracur­ric­u­lar op­por­tu­ni­ties not avail­able in state. He said Lo­gan Mu­nic­i­pal Schools, of which he is su­per­in­ten­dent, lost 17 stu­dents to trans­fers in a dis­trict of about 300.

“That’s over 5 per­cent,” Roch said. “That could have a huge im­pact on next year’s bud­get if we don’t make al­lowances for that.”

El­der said many of the dis­en­rolled stu­dents come from the prekinder­garten or kinder­garten level, and their par­ents are wait­ing for the ar­rival of a vac­cine be­fore re­turn­ing them to pub­lic schools. He added that it’s not just a po­ten­tial prob­lem for his school dis­trict.

“The state is go­ing to have an in­ter­est­ing is­sue for the next 13 years,” El­der said. “We could be look­ing at a kinder­garten class at 150 per­cent of pro­jec­tions — maybe even higher.”

While next year looks bleak, cur­rent con­di­tions are not any bet­ter.

Most school dis­tricts are al­ready scram­bling to ab­sorb pro­jected bud­get deficits. Al­bu­querque Pub­lic Schools in­di­cated it al­ready has a $7.9 mil­lion hole it hopes to plug by keep­ing some dis­trict va­can­cies open. Las Cruces Pub­lic Schools said its deficit is at $3.5 mil­lion. Rio Ran­cho Su­per­in­ten­dent V. Sue Cleveland said the dis­trict’s trans­porta­tion depart­ment is run­ning at a $1 mil­lion deficit even though it is trans­port­ing fewer stu­dents.

Add to that ad­just­ments the Pub­lic Ed­u­ca­tion Depart­ment made ear­lier this month in al­lo­ca­tion of the State Equal­iza­tion Guar­an­tee, a for­mula the state gov­ern­ment uses to de­ter­mine fund­ing for pub­lic school dis­tricts based on stu­dent en­roll­ment, that saw a re­duc­tion of $159.3 mil­lion statewide.

Santa Fe Pub­lic Schools ex­pe­ri­enced a $7.2 mil­lion cut in SEG ap­pro­pri­a­tion, dis­trict spokesman Cody Dy­narski said.

“I’ve never had a year quite like this one,” Cleveland said. “Even as we worked our way through the Great Re­ces­sion [in 2008], the chal­lenges are not even as great as they are right now. Some of the things you keep hear­ing through all the pre­sen­ta­tions and all of the com­ments is the need for flex­i­bil­ity, the need for agility, the need to be able to take some things off the plate.”

G. An­drés Romero

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