Bills would give schools operating leeway

By Argen Duncan: PNT senior writer

Pending state legislation could allow New Mexico schools more flexibility in how they handle possible budget cuts, but local administrators are waiting to see what happens and prioritizing.

Wednesday night and Thursday, the state Senate passed three bills that, if they pass the House, would allow schools to adjust finances and operating arrangements in ways not previously allowed, according to information from the Senate.

Senate Bill 24 would let schools pay for classroom instruction with money that previously was used for insurance premiums on school buildings. Senate Bill 25 would allow schools to temporarily move unspent buildings and grounds maintenance money to operational accounts.

Senate Bill 13 would suspend parts of the Public School Code, which regulates such things as class size, length of school days and principal duties, through the 2012 school year, according to the information.

Portales Municipal Schools Superintendent Randy Fowler said it appeared the House wouldn’t go along with all of the flexibility the Senate was trying to allow.

“We’re just in a wait-and-see position until (legislators) tell us what they’re going to do,” he said.

Portales schools trimmed about $800,000 from this year’s budget by shuffling staff to handle vacancies instead of hiring, limiting employee travel and being careful about buying supplies, Fowler said. Also, summer school was cut to a four-day week.

Fowler expects budget cuts in the current session and in January.

“We’re trying to anticipate what we’re going to do,” he said.

If the district takes deep budget cuts, Fowler said, it will have to reduce staff, which would mean an increase in class sizes.

Now, class sizes range from 15 for kindergarten to 24 for fifth and sixth grade, and secondary teachers are allowed to teach a maximum of 160 students per day, with some variation depending on subject.

For Floyd Municipal School, Superintendent Paul Michael Benoit also said he was waiting for the Legislature’s decision.

The last he heard Thursday afternoon, the schools could be facing 2 percent cuts “above the line” — in instruction, athletics and activity budgets — and 6 percent cuts “below the line” — in transportation, instructional materials and some programs.

Benoit didn’t expect to have to make big adjustments for below-the-line cuts because the district had new buses that required little maintenance and had already taken a 50 percent cut in instructional materials.

However, he said an above-the-line would mean changes.

“The first thing that we’ll look at is extracurricular programs,” Benoit said.

The superintendent expects to cut money for meals on school trips and decrease staff travel and training.

The last thing district leaders would consider is staff cuts, he said.

“It’s already at the minimum to meet the kids’ needs,” Benoit continued.

Removing rules on class size doesn’t help small districts because they already have small class sizes, he said.

Benoit said the Floyd School Board is committed to maintaining the integrity of the staff and, if possible, athletics, but classroom instruction is first priority.