By Margaret Wright
— Hanna Skandera, secretary-designate of the state’s Public Education Department, stayed positive Monday as she faced a barrage of questions from Democrats.
House Bill 3, the state’s public school budget, was subject to a headed discussion by members of the House and Senate Education Committees. Gov. Susana Martinez has proposed to increase the budget by more than $100 million.
Only brief mention was made of what House Education Committee Chair Rep. Mimi Stewart (D-Albuquerque) called “the elephant in the room.” She referred to the the Education Department’s major shortfall on special education spending requirements, a gap which could mean a loss of up to $93 million. States are required to spend a certain amount on special education in order to get grant money from the feds. Skandera’s office asked feds to waive the requirement for 2010 and 2011 but received notification in December that approval of the waiver isn’t likely.
Rep. Christine Trujillo (D-Albuquerque) got visibly emotional when she raised the issue of Skandera’s widely publicized ties to the Foundation for Excellence in Education, a policy group headed by her previous boss, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
Emails released in late January by a nonprofit called In the Public Interest show Skandera has worked closely with staff from the Foundation for Excellence in Education. “I’m concerned that we hear about this after the fact,” Trujillo told Skandera on Monday, Feb. 4, adding that it was unfortunate to learn of the emails just after news of the special education shortfall.
Skandera said that she “humbly” disagreed with Trujillo’s concerns and that she’d be happy to address them explicitly at a more appropriate time.
Controlling the Flow
Of particular interest to lawmakers was Skandera’s merit pay plan. Skandera said tying teachers’ salaries to evaluations of their effectiveness in the classroom “acknowledges excellence.”
“We need a new system that aligns excellence with pay,” she said.
When pressed for specifics by Rep. Sheryl Williams Stapleton (D-Albuquerque), Skandera said teachers will be evaluated using a mix of measures. Part of their performance—35 percent—will be based on three years of student test scores. Classroom observation and other tools (such as parent surveys) designed by local districts and approved by the PED will make up the other 65 percent.
Williams Stapleton also expressed concern about the amount of money in the governor’s executive budget that’s “below the line.”
So-called below-the-line money has to be spent on specific projects, including standardized curriculum chosen by the PED, but can be axed by the governor. Above-the-line money, on the other hand, allows local school districts more control. The funds get divided based on the number of students in each district and their needs, such as for bilingual or special education.
“You’re making determinations of what a school has and doesn’t have based on competitiveness when money is below-the-line,” said Williams Stapleton. “I’m concerned that PED decides who does and doesn’t get the money.”
During public comments, Ellen Bernstein, president of the Albuquerque teachers’ union, said merit pay inhibits effective teamwork among educators. She and representatives from several school districts also echoed Williams Stapleton’s concerns about below-the-line funding in the governor’s executive budget.
“Above-the-line funding allows districts to identify their priorities,” said Bernstein.
Tom Sullivan, interim superintendent of Mora Independent Schools, said that with no new above-the-line money, “we’re going to see programs decimated.”
Schools in New Mexico have long put up with governor-controlled money, he said. “But always after above-the-line funding was addressed. This executive budget has the potential for de-equalizing the funding formula we’ve had in place for years.”
Sullivan spoke with the Compass after the meeting adjourned, saying he’s seen school electives in rural parts of the state whittled away to practically nothing. “There are a whole lot of youngsters that need the engagement of extracurricular and elective activities to stay engaged in school, and we’re losing all of those extras.”
The problems rural districts face aren’t the same as bigger metropolitan schools, he added, “and this budget is ignoring them completely.”