San Juan County districts brace for funding cuts

Local school district administrators say they will have to cope with a drop in state funding if Gov. Susana Martinez signs into law Senate Bill 9

Joshua Kellogg

FARMINGTON — San Juan County school districts are bracing for cuts in state funding for the current school year if Gov. Susanna Martinez signs a bill from this year’s special session.

Senate Bill 9 would mandate a number of budget cuts, including a 5 percent cut for nearly all state agencies and a 5 percent budget cut for higher education funding.

The New Mexico House passed the bill on Oct. 6, the final day of the special session. Martinez has until Thursday to sign the bill or it will be pocket-vetoed.

The bill also contains a $37.8 million, or 1.5 percent, cut to State Equalization Guarantee, or SEG, funding for public schools, said Phil Valdez, deputy superintendent for the Farmington Municipal School District. SEG funding, which comes from state oil and gas tax revenue, provides districts money for operational costs based on enrollment.

New Mexico schools have seen a 13.9 percent cut in state funding per every students in kindergarten through 12th grade from 2008 to 2014, according to a new report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.The state of Oklahoma saw the biggest decline at 26.9 percent, according to the report issued on Thursday.

Farmington Superintendent Gene Schmidt told the board of education during an Oct. 13 meeting that the district is facing a potential loss of about $1.1 million in SEG funding, if the bill is signed into law.

At the meeting, Schmidt asked the finance committee to review the district’s budget. The district has already cut about $2.8 million from its budget for the current school year.

“It’s sad, but it’s hurting everybody,” Valdez said.

Bluffview Elementary School kindergarten teacher Grace Coleman reads to her class on Jan. 5, 2015. San Juan County school districts are bracing for cuts in state funding if Gov. Susana Martinez signs Senate Bill 9 into law.

The Central Consolidated School District is also preparing for a possible $1.1 million cut in SEG funding, according to a statement from Colleen Bowman, the interim superintendent.

CCSD programs that support education in the classrooms would be affected as administrators work to protect schools and classroom instruction, according to the statement. The district implemented a 2 percent cut for support departments as part of its budget for the current school year.

"The district is financially healthy. We have been good stewards of the public's money," Bowman said in the statement. "But because of that, we are now being penalized. We are told by the state 'spend it or lose it.'"

The Aztec and Bloomfield school districts are facing similar projected cuts of about $320,000.

Bloomfield School District Superintendent Kim Mizell said the district is reevaluating parts of its budget to avoid affecting classroom instruction and having to dip into the district's cash reserve. Administrators are also discussing cuts to staff travel and having district staff teach professional development, rather than hiring outside consultants.

"We’re just trying to buckle down and be proactive,” Mizell said.

If the bill were signed into law, it would also cut $30 million statewide in categorical funding, which includes transportation, instructional materials, textbooks for dual-credit classes and the Indian education fund.

Valdez, Mizell and Aztec Municipal School District Superintendent Kirk Carpenter expressed concerns about losing that funding.

A loss of funding for instructional materials would hurt districts looking to replace textbooks because the current school year is an adoption year to purchase new history textbooks, Mizell said.

Carpenter said Aztec schools have made budget cuts for several years, and he said he is concerned about how districts in New Mexico can improve student achievement while dealing with a drop in funding.

“There is already a issue with the way education is funded,” Carpenter said. “More cuts are not an option. There is nothing else to cut.”

Joshua Kellogg covers education for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4627.