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New Mexico told to change how it distributes Impact Aid to schools

Feds stepped in after some districts raised complaints

Sam Ribakoff
Farmington Daily Times
Germaine Chappelle
  • The Impact Aid Program office found that the current practices have resulted in student funding and educational disparities in some districts, including the Central Consolidated School District.
  • State education officials say they are trying to understand how the finding may affect all school districts in New Mexico.
  • The Impact Aid Program is supposed to provide money to school districts that can’t collect as much cash from local property taxes as other school districts.

FARMINGTON — U.S. Department of Education officials recently ordered New Mexico to make major changes to the way officials here distribute federal money to school districts across the state where tax collections are impacted by the amount of public land the districts include in their boundaries.

The Impact Aid Program office found that the current practices have resulted in student funding and educational disparities in some districts, including the Central Consolidated School District.   

The federal money is supposed to help equalize the funding the school districts receive to put them on par with other school districts that can raise the bulk of their annual budget from property taxes.

But representatives of CCSD, the Zuni School District and Gallup McKinley County Schools argued successfully that their students were not receiving an equitable level of funding because New Mexico has diverted millions of dollars away from the most severely impacted school districts — namely those that serve a majority Native American student body.       

“This is the first time in four or five decades that we’ve made headway in sending the government a message that things are not equal in New Mexico,” said Germaine Chappelle, an attorney for CCSD.

Not a formula for success?

Along with the Zuni and Gallup McKinley districts, CCSD successfully argued that the formula the state uses to distribute Impact Aid money was inequitable, leaving some students with inadequate resources.

Chappelle said the way Impact Aid works in New Mexico is that districts receive the money from the federal government. The state then takes credit for 75% of each school district’s Impact Aid appropriation that it keeps in a fund called the State Equalization Guarantee.

In the case of CCSD, that means that out of $20 million in Impact Aid funds, $15 million went to the state. The three school districts argued successfully that the formula that the state uses to distribute money to each school district is not equalized.  

"We are still in the beginning of understanding how this finding may affect all New Mexico school districts," the New Mexico Public Education Department stated in a response to the decision that was sent to The Daily Times. "When PED does have a plan to address this decision we will share it with school leaders, legislators and the media." 

The districts made note of the connection between the educational disparities in light of a landmark 2018 decision by Judge Sarah Singleton in the case of Yazzie-Martinez vs. the state of New Mexico, which found the state was depriving Native American students, Spanish-speaking students, low-income students and students with disabilities of their constitutional right to an adequate education.

“With Martinez-Yazzie, the judge in that case said from a constitutional perspective that every kid at every level deserves an education from an equal level,” Chappelle said, “You have to fund districts so that everyone is starting at the same place.”

How the Impact Aid Program works

Started in 1950, the Impact Aid Program is supposed to provide money to school districts that can’t collect as much cash from local property taxes as other school districts. The disparity occurs because of the amount of land in those districts that is tax-exempt property, including tribal land, military bases and national forests.

Impact Aid also seeks to level the playing field by taking into account the population of each district’s student body, and whether there are family members who work on federal property within the school district, as well as determining how many students live on tribal land.

Last month, the state filed a motion in the First Judicial District Court arguing that a recent increase in funding for public education and other proactive public education programs has satisfied the Yazzie-Martinez ruling and that the state is beginning to close the disparity gap between students across the state.

CCSD, Zuni and Gallup-McKinley argued that fixing the disparity in Impact Aid is an important part of fixing the educational disparities at the heart of the Yazzie-Martinez ruling.     

Board president describes the issues 

“The key word is disparity,” said Gary J Montoya, CCSD’s school board president.

Montoya said the disparities have made it difficult to implement a learning plan for CCSD students during the coronavirus-caused school closures. Montoya said some students and their families in the district might not have access to basic needs like electricity or transportation, much less access to computers and the Internet to access educational materials online.

Montoya described it as “real rural poverty.”  

Gary Montoya

“Here we are, as a state, as a district, wanting to do distant learning, but the rural rules do not apply for most districts. Las Cruces, Albuquerque, Santa Fe, we have a whole different set of rules," Montoya said, “We’re really trying to build to the nth degree out to these areas that need it. That’s why it’s important to get every dollar that we can get to serve these students.”

The way that federal Impact Aid money will be distributed to districts now is unclear, but CCSD hopes that each school district will be able to keep a much larger amount of the money, which could be fed back into paying for educational resources, and upgrades and renovations to buses and school infrastructure and buildings. 

Montoya referred to the state of some school buildings in the district as “for shame," adding that many of them are in need of repairs and renovations. 

Montoya added that with an increase in Impact Aid, the district could buy computers, and individual WiFi hotspots that students could use to access the internet.

“Then, like in Farmington, we could get kids computers and hotspots, and distant learning would not be interrupted,” Montoya said. 

Montoya said he wants the federal government and the state of New Mexico to own up to their legal and fiduciary agreements and obligations — with Native Americans and all students in the district — for equal educational opportunities.

“Those Impact Aid dollars directly have an impact on the education of these kids. We see these problems, but the ones that feel it are our children. At the end of the day, they’re the ones who are harmed by it, Montoya said, “There’s still a disparity, and now it’s been proven."

Chappelle said the students in the affected districts have been bearing the brunt of inequality for 50 years.

“This is the first step in righting these wrongs,” she said.

Chappelle hopes that people understand the decision is a win for all students across the state.

“What I’m trying to stress is that, this isn’t an us/them thing, it’s an us thing," she said. "Parents in Kirtland should be really excited about this decision, because every student in the district will now have an equal education, We don’t know exactly what this means now. We’re going to work very hard with the state to find a way to fix the system. We want to fix it so that all districts in the state are served. We don’t want have and have-nots.”

Sam Ribakoff is a visual journalist for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-333-5283 or via email at sribakoff@daily-times.com.

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