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District set to finalize budget

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Questions remain regarding state funding formula

By The Staff

The Los Alamos Board of Education is set to finalize its $33.1 million budget in a special meeting at 5:30 p.m. Thursday in the Pajarito Cliffs conference room.

The district’s budget is due to the state by May 25, and with some surgical cuts in specific programs combined with some help from Los Alamos County, it appears the board will be able to submit a balanced budget for the next fiscal year.

Public schools face a 2.8 percent reduction in state aid next year and lawmakers questioned Wednesday whether changes are needed in New Mexico’s financing formula to ensure districts receive their fair share of taxpayer dollars for education.

The Legislative Finance Committee received preliminary budget estimates showing a $66 million reduction to schools in the fiscal year that starts July 1.

Schools will get nearly $2.3 billion next year, which is allocated to districts based on a formula that relies on enrollment and other factors.

“We’re in challenging times. We’re trying to do the best we can with the resources that we have,” said Sen. John Arthur Smith, a Deming Democrat and committee chairman.

Some schools have expressed alarm recently over the prospect that their share of state aid could be lower than what they expected when the Legislature adjourned in March.

However, the committee’s latest financial and enrollment information showed that most districts should end up somewhat better off than initially projected — either their state aid reductions will be smaller than anticipated or funding increases may be a bit larger. Final calculations for allocating money to schools won’t become final until after districts report their enrollments next fall.

What isn’t changing is the total amount of money the Legislature approved for public education. The state budget assumes that schools will reduce their administrative expenses. Schools, like other government agencies, also are getting less money next year because of cost-cutting in public employee pension programs.

State aid for schools is distributed through a formula that was established in 1974 and is supposed to treat districts equitably. However, critics say some school systems are shortchanged while other districts take advantage of vagueness in the law to get extra aid, such as by having more specialized staff — like speech therapists — or by operating small schools or charter schools in urban areas.

Public Education Secretary Hanna Skandera upset some educators last month when she ordered a review of special education enrollment and other records in nearly three dozen districts, suggesting some schools might be “gaming the system” to boost their state aid. The funding formula provides schools more money if they have a higher number of special education students or if a district’s teaching staff is more experienced.

Los Alamos and seven other school districts were cleared of all issues regarding special education, special education services and expenses for teacher training and experience, based on a review of records and additional accountability measures established by the department’s auditing team.

In a telephone call to LAPS Superintendent Gene Schmidt, Skandera characterized the district as having “rock star status.” She commended the quality of documentation provided to PED during the audit process, Schmidt noted.

Skandera promised lawmakers the agency will continue with aggressive oversight of school finances. She said the agency can do a better job of stewarding taxpayer dollars, working with districts and accurately reporting data.

“And most importantly we can do a better job of ensuring that our students receive the services they need to be successful,” Skandera said.

Unlike Los Alamos, Albuquerque Public Schools Superintendent Winston Brooks told the committee the department’s review of records was the “strangest audit that I’ve ever been through in my career.” He complained there was no meeting with district officials before or after the review to discuss the audit plan and its findings.

Staff of the Legislative Finance Committee and the Legislative Education Study Committee will evaluate the funding formula in the next several months and prepare a report to lawmakers on possible revisions in law or administrative regulatory changes that could be done by the department.

Hobbs Schools Superintendent T. J. Parks asked lawmakers to make the funding formula more equitable.

“If we’re truly going to call it an equalization formula, let’s make sure we’re all equalized. Historically, Hobbs has been last in that formula,” Parks said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.