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New formula shorts LA schools

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By Roger Snodgrass

SANTA FE – The House Education Committee attracted a large audience Friday morning as Rep. Mimi Stewart, D-Bernalillo, presented a bill that would revise the state’s public school funding formula and pave the way for significant increases in public education budgets.The prospect of the bill raised caution flags in Los Alamos Thursday night, when Los Alamos Public Schools Superintendent Jim Anderson warned that the new formula might have an adverse effect on the local system’s funds.According to a preliminary spreadsheet of current program costs broken down by district, projected costs under the new “educational sufficiency” formula would go up in every district in the state, except Los Alamos.The Los Alamos costs for the current 2007-2008 school year are estimated at $26,359,322. Under the proposed formula, the projected cost would be $24,493,701, a reduction of $1,865,621, or about 7 percent.By comparison, funding for some of the smaller school districts would increase by almost 30 percent. Albuquerque, the largest district, would gain $57,253,348, or about 9 percent.For more than an hour, Stewart walked the committee through the 79-page bill, setting it in the context of the recent history of educational reform in the state, highlighting important changes and the underlying rationale provided by a two-year independent study of the funding formula.The draft bill declares as its purpose “to establish a new simplified funding formula for public schools that is based on student need, grade composition and scale of operations for school districts and charter schools.” The plan would phase in over the next three years, but not be fully funded to start until 2010.  A Fiscal Impact Report, prepared by the Legislative Finance Committee and delivered to the Education Committee during the hearing, stated that the funding formula contractor had identified a need of about $350 million per year, a 14-percent increase, to meet “full sufficiency.” By the time the new funding kicks in fully, the cost would go up to $575 million.“We don’t put the formula into effect until we have the money,” Stewart said. “No money. No formula.” The formula by which all but one district in the state would benefit is tied to a concept of “educational sufficiency,” intended to add not just compliance, but greater accountability to the process, including more participation by local school boards.School districts would be expected to develop an Educational Plan for Student Success, a long-range plan to improve student achievement. The plans must be “specific, reasonable, and attainable,” and be developed with input from representative stakeholders in the community.In evaluating each school district or charter school’s educational plan and operating budget the New Mexico Public Education Department would consider “how the school district proposes to address specifically the needs of low-income students, students who are not proficient in English, students whose education is disrupted by mobility, students in need of special education and gifted students.”During public comment invited by committee chair, Rep. Rick Miera, D-Bernalillo, Anderson said the Los Alamos School Board had talked about the proposed bill Thursday evening.“We support the bill in spite of the fact that Los Alamos would lose about $1.9 million,” he said, because the formula is keyed to educational needs that are less pertinent to Los Alamos.A “hold harmless” provision in the bill appears to answer that problem, he noted, but raised questions about how it would work and particularly how long it would work. He said that while the new formula caps special education students at 16 percent of the student population, “We’re at 17.5 percent.” Further, an additional 400 Los Alamos students, 13 percent of the total student population, are formally identified as “gifted.”The Los Alamos district would be responsible for providing special teachers for them, although it would not be compensated for it under the new formula. Anderson also cautioned against partial funding under the new formula.”If there’s not enough money,” he said, “there will be more losers and bigger losers.”In addition to state funds, Los Alamos schools receive $8 million a year from the Department of Energy. At the same time, the Los Alamos National Laboratory Foundation and various other programs related to the laboratory contribute several million dollars each year to educational projects in other counties of northern New Mexico.Several superintendents from small school districts strongly backed the new formula. Some said they were on supplemental emergency funds from the state and still could only offer “a bare bones curriculum.”The draft bill also adds five days to the length of the school year, to total at least 185 days, and contains a provision for recalibrating the formula every 10 years.The initial presentation of the bill was just the beginning of the lawmaking process, which Chairman Miera indicated that he expected to take some time.