By Jack King
On a swing through Curry and Roosevelt counties Wednesday, Gov Bill Richardson expressed support for a Ute Lake surface water distribution system, but was peppered with questions about his education reform plan by educators in Roosevelt County.
Richardson’s visits were part of a three-day, 11-city tour of eastern and southern New Mexico that will end in Carrizozo on Friday. He said the purpose of the trip is to thank voters for support in his election and to seek their support for upcoming initiatives. Those initiatives include proposals that will go before voters in a special election in September to create a cabinet-level Secretary of Education and to increase the amount taken from the state’s Permanent Fund to pay for education reforms.
In Clovis, Richardson said he has sent a letter to New Mexico’s Congressional delegation in support of the Eastern New Mexico Rural Water Authority’s attempt to build a surface water distribution system from Ute Lake. He said, at his request, the Legislature has approved reserving 10 percent for the state’s oil and gas severance tax revenue for water projects.
Richardson’s Director of Policy and Planning Bill Hume said the Ute Lake project is the kind of project the administration envisioned when it asked for the severance tax funds.
Richardson urged Curry County residents to support his education reforms, saying the state spends too much on school bureaucracy and that he wants to put more money into teachers’ salaries and classroom instruction.
But in Portales, Sandy Cowell told Richardson she was fired from Clovis Municipal Schools and told by the district’s assistant superintendent it was because of Richardson’s reform bill.
Melody Ortega, who said she teaches at Portales Junior High School, said she will get only a 4.5 percent raise as a result of Richardson’s reform package. She said because her district is not hiring new teachers this year, there will be a much higher student-to-teacher ratio in its classes.
Jane Thompson, coordinator of teacher instruction at Eastern New Mexico University, told Richardson many districts do not have the money this year to fund mandated teacher raises that will take effect in December. As a result, many teachers are losing their jobs or can’t find jobs, she said.
Richardson said it was the first he had heard of teachers losing their jobs because of the reforms he pushed through the Legislature.
“The justification, the math, you were given doesn’t make sense,” he told Cowell. “We’ve shifted funds from the reserves to cover the increases.”
“What’s essential is that we pass the increased funding from the Permanent Fund, but I do think there’s sufficient funding for the salary increase, although there may be a one-year shortfall. We’ve got to find a way to ensure those districts that don’t have the reserves are covered,” he added.
Portales Municipal School’s Superintendent James Holloway said superintendents statewide told Richardson in January there were not sufficient reserves to pay for the spending increases he wanted.
He said Richardson originally identified $88 million in school reserves statewide he thought could be used, but much of that money represented carryover funds disticts rolled into their budgets for the upcoming year. Although Richardson negotiated the first figure down to $16.4 million with superintendents, the state Department of Education finally received only $10.2 million from the schools.
The reduced amount, folded into the state’s equalization formula funding, meant each school did not receive high enough “unit value,” or per-student, funding to pay for the teacher salary increases, with their attendant increased benefits, Holloway said.
In other remarks Wednesday:
— Richardson said he carried both Curry and Roosevelt counties in the election.
— He applauded legislators for bringing $1.7 million in capital projects to Curry County and $1.4 million in capital projects and funding for ENMU to Roosevelt County.
— He said he appointed 17 Roosevelt County residents to state boards and commissions, including Terry Cone to the State Fair Commission, and David Stone to the New Mexico Finance Authority.