Legislature leaves schools frustrated

By Mike Linn

Local school board officials are frustrated about the disbursement of Legislative funds for new federal mandates that promise to increase teachers’ salaries and other expenses next school year.
The amount the New Mexico State Department of Education (NMSDE) has designated to Portales Municipal Schools for salary hikes and yearly expenses will leave the school about $600,000 short, money Portales school officials are searching feverously to find.
“It’s difficult to be optimistic in the present environment, but we will try,” said Jim Davis, finance director for the Portales Municipal Schools. “We are frustrated, and that’s the sense we’ve been getting from other districts in the state.”
This year’s Legislature allocated $1.9 billion state-wide for public schools, almost $80 million more than last year.
Ruth Williams, public relations director for the NMSDE, said she could not comment on specifics because finance directors have not seen next year’s budget for Portales schools. She did say that any school district can apply for extra funds if its budget can’t cover expenses for the new mandates.
The NMSDE is scheduled to review the budget for Portales Municipal Schools on May 22.
Davis said the savings in Portales have already started for next year: Field trips have been cut, as has money disbursement for teachers’ conferences this year.
But in the past the state has not allowed savings from one year to be used to pay salaries the next, something Davis hopes will change next school year.
Portales Municipal Schools has $347,000 in an emergency reserve account that it will almost certainly dip into as well, according to Murphy Quick, the principal of Portales High School.
The lack of funds may also affect classroom size, Quick said.
“Studies show the best environment for learning is a classroom size between 18-22 students, which may be increasing to the state maximum — about 30 — with the new budget problems,” Quick said.
Davis added that the new system mandated by the Legislature is a catch-22: More qualified teachers get paid more, resulting in budget problems that enlarge classroom size, which doesn’t maximize learning.
The 6 percent increase in teachers’ salaries and the $30,000 annual minimum for teachers will take affect the second pay period in December.
Currently, the minimum salary for a Portales school teacher is $25,260.
“We’re for the teachers’ raises, they are certainly underpaid and deserve the raise,” Quick said. “We’re just confused as to where we are going to get the money.”
Depending on educational experience, a teacher could receive a $10,000 salary increase within two years, according to Legislative mandates seeking higher-educated teachers.