Ms. Hanna Skandera
New Mexico Public Education Department
Jerry Apodaca Education Building
300 Don Gaspar
Santa Fe, NM 87501
September 24, 2013
Dear Secretary Skandera,
We’re writing to follow up on a discussion some of us had with you during your September 11, 2013 visit to Los Alamos and to ask for your support in our efforts to add local supplements to the funding level made available to the Los Alamos Public Schools through the State Equalization Guarantee.
We understand that New Mexico’s commitment is to a uniform and sufficient educational program for all its students. Many of us would like to see a commitment to an educational program that is excellent, rather than just sufficient. We believe, and courts in other states have held, that the education uniformity and sufficiency clauses like the one in our state Constitution set a minimum standard for all communities; and that once the minimum standard has been met – as it has been met in New Mexico – communities are free to provide additional funding to promote school excellence.
Over decades, it has been the practice of the New Mexico Public Education Department to block communities from providing their local schools with supplements to the resources provided under the state education funding formula. We think that prohibition relies on an overly activist interpretation of what the New Mexico Constitution and statutes require. We ask that you administratively reverse this unfounded position.
We’d like to explain why we’re interested in this change.
Because our schools perform fairly well, the misperception exists that they are well funded. In fact, our schools are funded at a level that puts them in the middle of the pack for New Mexico, which, as you know, puts them at the bottom of the pack nationally. After years under the State Equalization Guarantee, we are seeing our class sizes rise to unacceptably high levels; we are concerned about sustainment of educational enrichment programs in athletics, academic areas and the arts; we are concerned about access to special needs and gifted programs; and we are concerned that the low salaries paid to our teachers and staff, relative to their peers in the County government and in other excellent small town school systems, pose a strategic long-term recruiting and retention threat.
We face these challenges in education, our highest community priority, at a time when county resources are going toward local initiatives and programs that are of dramatically lower importance to us. Because of NMPED policy, our civic leaders have felt unable to right this imbalance. We believe that you have the authority to unilaterally address this situation, and we urge you to do so.
We’d like to explain why we think you have the authority to make this decision.
The New Mexico Constitution requires that a “uniform system of free public schools sufficient for the education of, and open to, all the children of school age in the state shall be established and maintained.” The NMPED policy of confiscating local educational operating supplements is (improperly) keyed to the “uniformity” aspect of this requirement.
There are a number of arguments against the NMPED interpretation. The simplest and most compelling is that if the long-standing and well-established local supplements for school capital spending meet the standards of uniformity and sufficiency, how could local supplements for school operating spending possibly run afoul of those standards? We really don’t see a need for a more involved argument, although several are readily available.
The clear conclusion is that the administrative rule under which NMPED would confiscate local educational operating supplements is not required by the Constitution, not specified in the school financing Statutes (section 22-8), and is based on an elective, administrative determination which can be electively and administratively amended.
There is legal support for reversing the current NMPED administrative policy on local supplements for education operational spending, to bring it into conformity with the statutorily authorized opportunity for local supplements for educational capital spending. Although this has not been litigated in New Mexico, a case was adjudicated in Arizona on similar language in the Arizona Constitution. In Roosevelt Elementary School District No 66 v. Bishop, the court ruled that “As long as the statewide system provides an adequate education, …local political subdivisions can go above and beyond the state wide system”, still meeting Arizona’s constitutional requirement for a “uniform” system. From the Arizona case Hull v. Albrecht, the court found “…substantial equalization is required by the uniformity clause. Districts that choose to go beyond these standards may do so by further taxation.”
The architects of the 1974 reform sought a system for New Mexico in which all schools would have access to funding for the constitutionally required “sufficient” education. Implicitly, the Legislature and Governor are providing that sufficient level of funding through the State Equalization Guarantee program. Outside courts have considered this issue and found “sufficient” educational programs to be a floor, not a ceiling, and local supplements to be entirely appropriate.
We urge you to accept this view, with a corresponding change in the confiscatory policy toward local educational operating supplements.
For almost 40 years, concerned Los Alamos residents have wrestled with the challenge that the New Mexico school funding model creates for our community. Many of us would support higher taxes so that all New Mexico students could have an education that is better than “sufficient”. Sadly, we feel the prospect for that kind of broad relief is rather bleak; so we are resigned to seeking a local solution to what we see as a problem that can only be addressed locally.
Los Alamos is an engine for growth, prosperity, and philanthropy for all of Northern New Mexico. Many members of the very specialized workforce that drive these benefits for our region have the choice of living in New Mexico, or living elsewhere. We have made the choice to live here, and to contribute to the region and the community. But, when it comes to education for our children, we have minimum requirements that exceed the standard of a “sufficient” education. To further this aim, we’ve formed a group, Save Our Schools Los Alamos, to seek relief from the NMPED caps on school operating funding.
We ask that you support us in this aim, recognizing that we give vastly more than we take from the region, and that an accommodation for us and for other communities in New Mexico with similar priorities, benefits us all and takes nothing from anyone.
We thought it would be beneficial to send this letter and provide you with this information and our request in advance of meeting with you. We very much appreciate your consideration and will contact you soon to schedule a meeting to discuss it further.
Tim and Susan O’Leary
4920 Sandia Drive
Los Alamos, NM 87544
30 Co-Signers, all residents of Los Alamos: Names removed for privacy
Members, Los Alamos County Council
Members, Los Alamos School Board
Dr. Eugene Schmidt, Los Alamos Public Schools
New Mexico Rep. Stephanie Garcia Richard
New Mexico State Senator Carlos R. Cisneros
New Mexico State Senator Richard C. Martinez