School officials fear more funding cutbacks

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LAPS: New formula could result in the district losing $1.3 million

By Jennifer Garcia

Los Alamos Public Schools was tasked with trimming $600,000 from its budget this year and may be in for even more cuts.

A meeting of the state Legislative Finance Committee, next week at the State Capitol, will determine if the budget issue will go to the Legislature during its upcoming session. The action has come about after the LFC and the Legislative Education Study Committee did a study on revising the school funding formula.

LAPS Chief Financial Officer John Wolfe said the formula was started in the 1970s. It’s been tweaked and modified over the years, but three years ago, State Rep. Mimi Stewart, D-Bernalillo, proposed a whole new funding formula.  Wolfe said the project was “put on a shelf because of lack of funds,” but recently the LFC and LESC was given direction to do a study on the formula. Should the resulting new formula be implemented, the LAPS district could stand to lose approximately $1.3 million.

Until 1997, the state of New Mexico contributed about 74 percent of school funds. In 1997, the legislature passed a revised school funding formula (S.B. 100), increasing the share of funds to around 84 percent and targeting more of these funds to at-risk students. Money raised in individual school districts may go toward construction and maintenance, but not for school operating costs.

The state equalization guarantee distribution is that amount of money distributed to each school district to ensure that the school district’s operating revenue, including its local and federal revenues, is at least equal to the school district’s program cost.

“There’s no change to the pie, it stays the same. This one just shifts funds,” Wolfe said. Las Cruces also could be a big loser, with a potential $2.2 million on the line, while Carlsbad stands to lose $3 million. Santa Fe Public Schools could lose $4.5 million; Farmington could lose $4 million; Rio Rancho could lose more than $2 million and the Española Valley School District, as well as charter schools, could also come up short.

If the formula is implemented, Wolfe said there would be a two-year hold harmless period in which the “winners” would be awarded $48 million and the “losers” would be preserved.

“But they need $48 million,” Wolfe said, explaining that another option, albeit an unlikely one, would be to get the money from the permanent fund. “There are elements of the old formula that didn’t make it into the proposal, or it could have been higher.”

“It just keeps impacting our education,” LAPS Superintendent Gene Schmidt said. “Now is not a good time to be cutting public education. It’s never a good time to cut.” He wanted to make clear that the issue may or may not be presented to the Legislature, but “because of the draconian impact, it’s important that the public know this conversation is going on.”

Wolfe said the LFC is formulating bills that it will present to the Legislature and will decide at a meeting today, whether the new formula will be one of those items.

Schmidt said that Rep. Jim Hall, R-Los Alamos, Santa Fe and Sandoval counties, is very knowledgeable of the proposal and is aware of the district’s displeasure. He also encourages the community to call their legislators and share their thoughts on what a $1.3 million reduction to school funding would mean.

Following the LFC’s meeting, the school district will have a better idea of the situation its facing in the coming budget year.