County school districts prepare for budget cuts

Joshua Kellogg

FARMINGTON — San Juan County public school districts are preparing for another set of cuts in state funding as legislators work to balance this year's state budget.

Mesa Alta Junior High School seventh-graders Cassidy Hoisington-Scott, left, Javen Chaves, middle, and Damien Garcia, right, finish a worksheet in Jennifer Augustine's pre-algebra class in Bloomfield on Friday.

Lawmakers are working to fix a budget deficit of $70 million for the current fiscal year.

Superintendents for San Juan County are bracing for the impact of Senate Bill 114 that was passed by the House of Representatives and the Senate last week.

The bill would pull back about $46 million in school funding statewide to help balance the 2016-2017 state budget, according to a Legislative Education Study Committee bill analysis. Districts and charter schools are expected to offset the loss in funding by using portions of their cash balance.

That could mean a reduction of about 2 percent in state funding for this year's budget for San Juan County school districts.

The Farmington Municipal School District is projected to lose about $1.48 million in state funding, according to Superintendent Gene Schmidt.

The district recently absorbed a cut of about $1.1 million in state funding when Senate Bill 9 was signed into law in October following a special legislative session. It called for a 1.5 percent reduction in the state equalization guarantee funding for public schools.

In the last 12 months, Schmidt said his district has seen its budget reduced by $7 million.

"That's a lot," Schmidt said. "That is a lot that is not coming back next (school) year."

Farmington schools likely will not fill the current 15 teacher vacancies in the district due to the possible reduction, Schmidt said.

The Central Consolidated School District is expecting a cut of about $919,000 if the bill is passed, according to CCSD spokesman James Preminger. He said district officials have spoken with area legislators and asked them to protect the education of their students.

Kirk Carpenter, superintendent for Aztec Municipal School District, said his district would see a reduction of about $419,000. For the current school year, Aztec schools has lost about $877,000.

He said the recent budget cuts for school districts statewide have been devastating.

"For us, it's going to impact us greatly," Carpenter said.

In a letter to state legislators from Carpenter, he wrote that reducing or sweeping cash balances would be very detrimental for students statewide.

Carpenter's letter also objected to Gov. Susana Martinez referring to a school district's cash balance as an "administrative slush fund" that does not have an impact on classroom instruction.

"Cash balances are used to cover the many unfunded mandates and costs not covered by the State Equalization Guarantee (SEG)," Carpenter wrote in the letter.

Bloomfield School District Superintendent Kim Mizell said her district is projecting a reduction of about $426,000.

She said the district will use its cash balance to cover the reduction but added that she is concerned about future possible reductions in SEG funding.

Carpenter and Schmidt are projecting another cut of 1 or 2 percent in SEG funding for the 2017-2018 school year. Both superintendents believe legislators need to look at a structural change in the state's tax code.

Carpenter said it's time to quit cutting funding for state agencies and to look at possible tax reforms that would generate additional revenue for the state's budget.

"We've cut ourselves as far as we can," Carpenter said. "These cuts are going to and are affecting classrooms across the state."

Schmidt hopes that local school districts are given more flexibility to spend state funding if further reductions take place.

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