by Alisa Boswell, Portales News-Tribune
August 31, 2016

A Wednesday press release from New Mexico Voices for Children said a recent study done by the organization shows that student population growth outweighs New Mexico public education funding.

“New Mexico was still spending less per student on K-12 public education in 2015 than it did before the recession (in 2008),” said the release. “In the two years since then, funding increases — which amounted to less than 1 percent a year — have still been too low to keep pace with inflation and student population growth.”

Local school officials confirmed Wednesday funding has been a long-time problem for New Mexico schools, and future funding is not looking any more hopeful.

“We’re all (schools) funded based on the State Equalization Act, so it all amounts to the number of students we have and the number of units that those students produce, and we’re paid by the unit,” said Portales Schools Superintendent Johnnie Cain, adding student population for Portales schools has remained flat over the years.

“The only thing that really brings our income and our revenue up is more students. We apply for any grants that we can. That helps a lot, but there’s just not a lot of other money out there that’s available for operations,” said Cain. “Our costs go up every year, and that’ what hurts us. Otherwise, we could run on a flat budget.”

But the trouble doesn’t stop there for public schools, according to Cain and Clovis Superintendent Jody Balch, who both said health insurance for school staff members and utilities for buildings increases each year, among other things.

Cain said employee insurance went up 8 percent this year, and the school district has to pick up a piece of that cost.

“Then our liability through the state went up. It hit us around $100,000 extra,” Cain said. “Those kind of expenses, they’re fixed. There’s nothing we can do about those. We’ve still got to cover them. Those are the things that hurt us. If we didn’t have those expenses rising that are beyond our control, then we could make it a lot easier.”

Balch said the Clovis school district ranks 87th out of 89 schools in New Mexico for funding, and 90 percent of the district’s money goes to paying salaries and benefits for staff members.

“That means 10 percent is to operate facilities after salaries and benefits,” Balch said. “When you factor in health insurance and utilities going up each year, we can’t pay our staff what we should.”

What makes this financial situation more discouraging is the lack of pay is discouraging high school graduates from going into the education field, according to Balch.

“Not being able to pay our employees what I believe they should truly be paid,” is the biggest problem with lack of educational funding, Balch said.

“What it prevents is some very good people from staying in the field, because it’s not financially rewarding to stay in education,” Balch said. “High school graduates are not going into college to go into teaching. They’re not even giving it a shot … which is creating a heck of a teacher shortage. To draw people into this business, they need to be compensated for their educational value.”

Not to mention, expectations of teachers increase every year too, he added.

“I believe we are between a rock and hard place because of how funds are built in New Mexico,” Balch said. “When oil and gas is almost your sole source of revenue, and it gets cut as drastically as it has, you’re going to have (state) cuts. I don’t see any way of it getting better any time soon. I don’t think there’s a quick fix to it.”

Staff Writer Eamon Scarbrough contributed to this report.

Copyright 2016, Portales News-Tribune