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Garcia Richard intros education amendment

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School funding > Constitutional change requires voter OK

By Tris DeRoma

State Rep. Stephanie Garcia Richard, (D-Los Alamos, Santa Fe, Sandoval and Rio Arriba), may be new to the legislature, but she’s managed to get everyone’s attention with a proposed constitutional amendment that seeks to adequately fund New Mexico’s schools.

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The amendment would reduce the number of children per classroom in all New Mexico school districts by the 2020-21 school year, a task that may take about $800 million in new construction and new hires to accomplish, according to an impact report prepared by the Legislative Finance Committee.

Since it is an amendment to the constitution, that means that if it passes the legislature, it will become a referendum that will go before voters.

“This is why I’m interested in putting this forth as a constitutional amendment,” Garcia Richard said. “It takes it to the people that should have a part in this decision-making process. It takes it to the parents; it takes it to the educators, bottom-line, to all the taxpayers. It’s for them to make the decision.”

If it passes that test, then the amendment will be gradually phased in, starting in the school year 2015-16.

Though 2020 may seem like a long way off, Garcia Richard said serious commitment to funding New Mexico’s public schools need to start now.

“I don’t think there’s any disagreement that we need to fix New Mexico’s schools,” Garcia Richard said, adding that the state has a constitutional obligation to properly fund the public school system.

She sees her amendment as a start in a conversation about the state’s financial priorities.

“What does that ‘sufficient’ funding look like?” Richard asked. “With this bill what I’m really looking to do is start a conversation around this is a start in providing sufficient funding for New Mexico’s kids.”

By 2021, the amendment calls for 18 students per class for kindergarten through grade three; 22 students per class for grades four through eight and 25 students per class for grades nine through 12.

According to an impact report prepared by the Legislative Finance Committee, the amendment might result in the need for an additional $188.2 million for additional teachers and staff.

“Adjusting for benefits, the minimum cost of (the amendment) when implemented to accommodate the required teachers is $188.2 million. This represents approximately 8 percent of the program cost received by public schools in FY13,” a statement in the report said.

New construction for additional classrooms is estimated to cost $610.5 million.

“The Public Education Department estimates that of the 3,115 new teachers required, 20 percent, or 623 teachers will be able to be accommodated within current school configurations without capital costs. The department estimates that school districts will need to build 2,492 new classrooms totaling $610.5 million (estimated at $245,000 per classroom),” according to another statement in the report said.

Garcia Richard acknowledged the steep price tag and said the projections are relatively accurate but she said the numbers should be looked at in context to what she’s trying to do.

“This is not a quick fix that I’m proposing,” she said. “This is really a long term investment in New Mexico’s kids and New Mexico’s public education system.”

The House Elections and Voters Committee has passed the bill “without recommendation to the Education committee, where it now sits.

Garcia Richard said she hopes the rest of the legislature joins her in taking on the massive challenge, or at least open up a conversation on how to adequately fund New Mexico’s school system.

“What I’m asking for is the commitment,” Garcia Richard said of her legislation. “The funding sources in that conversation follow. Right now what we’re really looking at is what that ‘sufficient funding’ looks like. This bill is the first step in getting us there.”

According to LAPS Superintendent Dr. Gene Schmidt, the proposed amendment doesn’t affect the Los Alamos District too much, being the class sizes are generally in line with the numbers already. However, he said the bill is sure to spark positive debate on the state of funding for education.

“Her hope is to create a conversation,” Schmidt said. “Is the state sufficiently funding public education? She thinks she can engage that as a statewide discussion through the introduction of this house joint resolution. I think the conversation is going to be interesting.”