House panel OKs public school budget bill

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By Barry Massey

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — State spending on public schools would be cut by more than 1 percent next year under a budget proposal approved by a House committee Monday.

The House Education Committee recommended spending nearly $2.4 billion on schools, the Public Education Department and education programs such as pre-kindergarten in the fiscal year that starts in July. That's about $30 million, or 1.2 percent, less than this year's spending on public education.

Committee chairman Rep. Rick Miera, D-Albuquerque, said the panel tried to protect school funding as much as possible.

But he said, "Times are tough. We are going to be cutting."

The panel's spending recommendations could force schools to eliminate one professional development day for teachers and other employees.

About $5 million of the proposed cuts are expected to come from administrative cost-savings. However, Republican Gov. Susana Martinez has proposed trimming school administrative costs by $30 million next year. The department's budget would be trimmed by $3 million, or about 21 percent, which was recommended by the governor.

The committee's bill isn't the final word on school finance and more cuts are likely for schools before the Legislature finishes work on a state budget for next year.

The committee assumed no cost savings from a pension contribution swap recommended by the governor and a legislative budget committee.

A proposal by the Legislative Finance Committee, for instance, would trim an additional $27 million from public schools next year by reducing government pension contributions by 1.75 percent while workers boost their contributions by that amount. The proposal would reduce the take-home pay of public employees.

The Education Committee left the pension issue to be decided by House and Senate budget committees. The education spending recommendations go to the House Appropriations and Finance Committee, which will consider them as it develops a budget bill for all government operations.

Public schools historically account for the largest share of the state budget, representing about 43 percent of spending this year.

Charles Bowyer, executive director of the National Education Association-New Mexico, said the cuts by the Education Committee and expected pension fund contribution increases on educators will be "devastating."

"It's going to cause a lot of disruption. It's going to cause program cuts. It's going to cause job losses. It's going to hurt kids," Bowyer said in an interview.

The committee estimates that schools could save $12 million next year by eliminating one "non-instructional" day in the school year, typically a day devoted to professional development for staff when students aren't in class. State law requires the equivalent of 180 days of classroom instruction, and that wouldn't change.

The panel's budget measure assumes the $12 million in savings but would leave it to local school districts to decide whether to wipe out a professional development day or cut costs elsewhere.

Bowyer said the potential cuts to professional development come at a time when schools are being asked to boost student performance.

"It's putting teachers and other school employees in almost an untenable situation. We're saying do more, do more with less, do it better and by the way feel less rewarded for it because we're cutting your pay," Bowyer said.