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Departing Public Education secretary seeks $400 million more next year

December 14, 2018

New Mexico’s outgoing head of public education proposed Thursday that the state spend an additional $400 million on K-12 schools next year, including $120 million to raise teacher salaries.

“One great teacher is worth a million bucks,” Public Education Secretary Christopher Ruszkowski told the Legislative Finance Committee.

The state continues to grapple with the problem of recruiting and retaining teachers, he said, adding that some of the ideas in his proposal could ease that problem. For instance, money would go toward a teacher recruitment and mentoring program.

Ruszkowski, part of a Republican administration, will be out of a job when Democratic Gov.-elect Michelle Lujan Grisham takes office in January. Her executive team will pitch its own budget for public education in January, so it’s unclear if Ruszkowski’s proposals will hold much weight with lawmakers.

But Sen. John Arthur Smith, a Democrat from Deming who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, said Ruszkowski’s proposed budget is in “the ballpark” and deserves consideration.

“Hopefully the new administration will not totally reject those ideas and will look at it responsibly,” Smith said.

The state’s now spends about $2.7 billion on public schools. The increase Ruszkowski pitched would amount to almost 15 percent.

Still, that wouldn’t be enough to satisfy everyone.

The shadow of a July court decision ordering legislators to devise a plan to ensure that public schools receive the resources they need hung over the budget hearing. State District Judge Sarah Singleton of Santa Fe found that New Mexico’s schoolchildren are “caught in an inadequate system and will remain there … if better programs are not instituted.”

Her ruling sprang from a lawsuit filed against the state in 2014 on behalf of a group of students, parents and school districts. As it played out, arguments centered on whether the state was providing enough money to ensure that its impoverished, special-needs or English-language learners have a shot at success.

Ruszkowski told the committee that many of the funding ideas in his budget proposal address Singleton’s ruling.

But in a letter to Legislative Finance Committee members this week, attorneys for the plaintiffs in the lawsuit asked for more than $1 billion in new money for schools. That is well over double what Ruszkowski proposed for next year.

Sen. Carlos Cisneros, D-Questa, asked Ruszkowski if the Public Education Department still plans to appeal Singleton’s decision, which it once vowed to do.

Ruszkowski said time is running out on the administration of Gov. Susana Martinez.

“The decision will not be mine to make,” Ruszkowski said. “… It will fall back in your lap in January or whenever.”

Lujan Grisham, who takes office Jan. 1, has said she agrees with Singleton’s decision and will not appeal it.

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