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Plan education reforms in the open

October 2, 2018

Few issues are more important to the public than the education of New Mexico children. That’s especially true considering that the state is caught up in a lawsuit over how it pays for learning — plaintiffs successfully have contended that the state funding formula distributed through the Public Education Department fails to fund public schools to the standard required under New Mexico’s Constitution.

A Santa Fe District Court judge has agreed, telling the Legislature not just to spend more but to do so strategically and in a fashion to impact students at a higher risk of falling behind in school. Now, the state Legislature has to rework how public education is funded in time to meet an April deadline from Judge Sarah Singleton. (The state of New Mexico has said it would appeal the decision.)

All of this, as the backdrop for what happened last week. The interim Legislative Education Study Committee was meeting in Albuquerque to discuss ways to improve the state’s public school system. An obvious matter of public interest, correct?

To that end, reporters at KUNM-89.9 FM radio had planned to livestream the hearing, held at Hawthorne Elementary School in Albuquerque. That logical effort, however, caused consternation in the room. When committee staffers noticed that reporters were ready to record, KUNM reporters say they blocked access to equipment needed to start recording.

Worse, committee chairwoman, Democratic Sen. Mimi Stewart, had sent an email to KUNM reporters that said, “I will check in with the ranking member for permission to live stream when I get to the committee.” She later indicated, too, that she would like to close the meeting so that lawmakers could ask questions privately, but changed her mind. Her excuse, er, exception was “pending litigation.”

That exception is legal under the state Open Meetings Law, but we are unsure how a meeting to discuss programs to satisfy the judge’s ruling qualifies — it seems to us the exemption might cover legal strategies, not policy. Even if closing the meeting had been legal, it is bad for transparency and open government.

Shutting out the public is not the kind of behavior we expect from a legislator as conscientious as Stewart. Neither is quibbling about recording a meeting. After all, state law allows any member of the public — it doesn’t have to be a journalist — to record open meetings.

Solutions to improve education likely will not come primarily from lawmakers or lawyers who brought the suit, as well-intentioned and knowledgeable as all are.

No, some of the best ideas about reforming and improving education will come from the public on the ground — whether students, parents, teachers, principals or others who help kids learn every day.

That’s why broadcasting hearings is so important, as is having sessions in different parts of the state — last week, while the meeting in Albuquerque was happening, there was a second going on in Southern New Mexico. Keep including as many people as possible.

If lawmakers need to meet with lawyers privately, do that, but not in a meeting presented as an opportunity for all to hear about education reform.

There’s too much ground to make up to waste a minute behind closed doors.

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