G. Andrés Romero heard and understood the concerns expressed by public school district superintendents from across the state because he saw the problem, too.
There was a common theme to the superintendents’ worries, regardless of the size of their districts, voiced during a Legislative Education Study Committee session Wednesday morning. They expressed serious reservations about what their budgets will look like for the 2021-22 school year based on funding formulas legislators have in place, and they need their help to fix the problem.
Superintendents from school districts in Logan, Tularosa, Des Moines, Las Cruces, Albuquerque and Rio Rancho presented data that showed significant declines in student enrollment for the 2020-21 school year, driven by the coronavirus pandemic. That could lead to decidedly smaller budgets for next year because they are based on current enrollment figures.
Romero, a Democratic state representative from Albuquerque who also chairs the House’s Education Committee, said that isn’t the only problem. There is an expectation that the exodus of public school students is only temporary. If they return to school next fall, it would exacerbate the impact of the impending budget crunch.
Romero recognizes there is a need to offer schools relief from a perfect storm of unforeseen circumstances.
“There is a lot of understanding and agreement that we need to do something to help the school districts and hold them harmless from this school year,” said Romero, who is a teacher at Atrisco Heritage Academy High School.
State Public Education Secretary Ryan Stewart said in a statement he has heard similar details from superintendents and administrators from around the state, and the department is committed to acting on their behalf.
“Based on the data and observed impact, we will work with the Governor’s Office on any needed legislation to ensure that these impacts are appropriately accounted for when preparing school budgets for next year,” Stewart said.
The phrase “hold harmless” was used frequently by school officials during the session as they sought the phrase’s inclusion by legislators in next year’s general appropriation bill so the state can determine funding based on 2019-20 enrollment figures if they are higher than the current ones.
Albuquerque Public Schools Superintendent Scott Elder said his district expects about a 4,000-student drop compared to last year, much of which he attributes to parents choosing home-schooling or private school options. The loss in revenue would be equal to losing 150 full-time employees, and APS could see a $36 million decrease in state funding based on enrollment figures.
Rio Rancho Public Schools had an enrollment decline of 789 students to 16,904. Las Cruces Public Schools reported 24,201 students registered on its rolls this year compared to 24,806 in 2019-20.
Dennis Roch, president of the New Mexico School Superintendents Association, said many school districts along the state’s borders are seeing students leave to go to out-of-state schools because they have in-person education and other extracurricular opportunities not available in state. He said Logan Municipal Schools, of which he is superintendent, lost 17 students to transfers in a district of about 300.
“That’s over 5 percent,” Roch said. “That could have a huge impact on next year’s budget if we don’t make allowances for that.”
Elder said many of the disenrolled students come from the prekindergarten or kindergarten level, and their parents are waiting for the arrival of a vaccine before returning them to public schools. He added that it’s not just a potential problem for his school district.
“The state is going to have an interesting issue for the next 13 years,” Elder said. “We could be looking at a kindergarten class at 150 percent of projections — maybe even higher.”
While next year looks bleak, current conditions are not any better.
Most school districts are already scrambling to absorb projected budget deficits. Albuquerque Public Schools indicated it already has a $7.9 million hole it hopes to plug by keeping some district vacancies open. Las Cruces Public Schools said its deficit is at $3.5 million. Rio Rancho Superintendent V. Sue Cleveland said the district’s transportation department is running at a $1 million deficit even though it is transporting fewer students.
Add to that adjustments the Public Education Department made earlier this month in allocation of the State Equalization Guarantee, a formula the state government uses to determine funding for public school districts based on student enrollment, that saw a reduction of $159.3 million statewide.
Santa Fe Public Schools experienced a $7.2 million cut in SEG appropriation, district spokesman Cody Dynarski said.
“I’ve never had a year quite like this one,” Cleveland said. “Even as we worked our way through the Great Recession [in 2008], the challenges are not even as great as they are right now. Some of the things you keep hearing through all the presentations and all of the comments is the need for flexibility, the need for agility, the need to be able to take some things off the plate.”