English teacher Alma Bitoy in her classroom at the Pine Hill School in New Mexico on Thursday, August 11, 2022. (Chancey Bush/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal

The state Public Education Department revealed a budget request of over $4.3 billion from New Mexico’s general fund this week, one which Education Secretary Kurt Steinhaus said is focused on a singular goal.

“It’s to move the needle for student achievement, and while we’re moving the needle, we’re closing the gap among the student groups that are identified in Martinez-Yazzie, but even more than that, all of our students,” he told lawmakers during a recent Legislative Education Study Committee meeting. “That’s our number one goal, and this entire budget is built around moving forward in addressing that goal.”

In 2018, a New Mexico judge in the Martinez-Yazzie consolidated lawsuit found that the state wasn’t providing an adequate or sufficient public education system to its most at-risk students. Four specific groups were identified: Indigenous students, English learners, students with disabilities, and those who are economically disadvantaged.

The budget proposal will be voted on in the upcoming legislative session. The LESC is considering several bills that are similar to items in the proposal.

The coming year’s budget recommendation saw the most growth over the current budget in one-time funding, which grew from some $35 million to over $203 million. Those dollars include investments in things like educator recruitment and behavioral health support.

The biggest chunk of change in the budget proposal is the state equalization guarantee – the main method New Mexico uses to distribute funds to school districts – at over $3.8 billion.

That alone is close to the total amount of the overall public education budget approved for the current fiscal year. All together, the PED is asking for over 9% more from the general fund than it got this year.

Fourth-graders line up to leave the classroom at the Mission Achievement and Success Charter School in southeast Albuquerque, N.M., on Tuesday, Nov., 15, 2022. MAS Charter School received a $3 million donation from philanthropist MacKenzie Scott, who is the former wife of Jeff Bezos. (Chancey Bush/Albuquerque Journal)

The executive budget recommendation will be finalized and released in early January, the PED said in a news release.

Here are some of the largest – or most notable – items in the proposal:

• $261 million that would go to increasing instructional time. The LESC is also considering legislation that would increase the required number of instructional hours for New Mexico schools to 1,140. Currently, secondary school students go to school for 1,080 hours per year, and first through sixth graders, who typically spend less time in school per day, go for 990.

One part of the bill – which would add up to 60 hours of professional work time for educators – gave some lawmakers pause.

But LESC officials pointed out that the time could be embedded into the school day, that it could include things like home visits or parent-teacher conferences and that teachers would be compensated for the extra time at work.

• $109 million for 4% raises for all school employees, and $3 million to increase the minimum salaries of school principals by $3,500. Steinhaus argued that would help address the state’s “educator workforce crisis,” which in October was put at 1,344 vacancies.

• $56 million would go to hiring and training “hard-to-fill” positions, including staff like school counselors. According to the October vacancy report, by the New Mexico State University Southwest Outreach Academic Research Evaluation and Policy Center, there were 32 school counselor vacancies across the state.

Other needs the report highlighted included paraprofessionals and speech-language pathologists, for which there were 39 and 36 vacancies, respectively.

• $50 million for “enhanced extended learning opportunities” – time spent after school to help close achievement gaps. Another $33 million would go toward similar optional programs specifically geared toward special education students.

• $10 million for school safety infrastructure. That prompted some questions from Rep. Brian Baca, a Los Lunas Republican, who asked that the department look at increasing that number.

“School safety is on the mind of both our students, our staff and our parents, so I would really hope that … we’re looking at increasing that, because our children are our most valuable resource,” he said. “They’re our future, and kids need to feel safe, and staff needs to be safe for the best learning to take place.”

Also among the bills the LESC is considering is one to remove future offsets – money owed to the state for brick-and-mortar projects from past appropriations – and to forgive existing offsets for many school districts. Such offsets have provided a barrier for some school districts in making school security improvements.

Albuquerque Public Schools, for example, had an over $36.7 million offset as of September, and has pushed state lawmakers to make capital funding more accessible or to even forgive offsets.