Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE — New Mexico will spend far less money this summer helping children brush up on their math and reading skills.
And the cuts won’t fall evenly.
Albuquerque, Las Cruces and Los Lunas are among the districts hit hardest by reductions in state funding for the “K-3 Plus” program, according to data released by legislative analysts.
And some communities, by contrast, won approval to launch new programs or boost enrollment. Clovis, for example, plans to expand its K-3 Plus program nearly eight times over.
The disparity comes as several school districts say the state Public Education Department didn’t notify them of their grant awards by a deadline in state law — a charge the PED disputes.
The department says it’s doing the best it can with the limited money available, and that several factors went into deciding how much each district received.
State Sen. Mimi Stewart, an Albuquerque Democrat and chairwoman of the Legislative Education Study Committee, isn’t convinced.
“It just looks like gross mismanagement of this program in its 10th year,” Stewart told the Journal. “There’s no excuse for them to do it this way.”
The department, in turn, says the Legislature and districts themselves bear much of the blame.
The state’s K-3 Plus program had to give up some money in the solvency package that helped New Mexico balance its budget, making some cuts necessary, Public Education Department officials said.
Altogether, the state awarded about $18 million this summer for K-3 Plus programs — down from $25 million last year, a 28 percent reduction, according to legislative analysts.
How each district fared, PED said, was based partly on historic enrollment levels — not just how many students participated the previous year — and whether a district was willing to delay the start date of its program.
Districts that pushed the start of their K-3 Plus program into July, when the new fiscal year begins, had an easier time securing more of the funding they wanted, even for new programs, a department spokeswoman said.
“Some districts were unwilling to adjust to fiscal realities that would have allowed for more students to be served,” said Lida Alikhani, a spokeswoman for the Public Education Department.
And the Legislature, she said, could have directed more money to the program.
Almost everyone agrees the K-3 Plus program is effective. It has demonstrated success at improving math and reading skills for students in kindergarten through third grade, according to legislative analysts.
“There are so many of our students that have working parents, so summertime is not the most engaging time for them,” said Joe Strickland, deputy superintendent of instruction at the Clovis Municipal School District. “I don’t think there’s anywhere to go but up on student achievement.”
His district won an increase in funding this summer from about $48,000 a year ago to roughly $334,000 this year.
The K-3 Plus program typically adds 25 instructional days to the school year. It’s targeted at schools that serve low-income neighborhoods or have performed poorly in the state’s annual A-F grading system. Parents of students at the participating schools have to sign up.
The program has grown sharply over the last decade.
The number of students funded by the state quadrupled between 2011 and last year, from 4,941 students to 20,166.
But that trend will end this year. Only 15,050 students are funded this year, the smallest number in four years and about 25 percent fewer children than last year, according to data compiled by the Legislative Education Study Committee.
The Legislature’s appropriation for the program has been roughly flat in recent years — between $22.6 million and $23.7 million, according to legislative analysts.
To meet demand, the Public Education Department says, the state has dipped into its reserves to supplement the main appropriation.
That’s no longer possible because of the state budget crunch, so “program right-sizing occurred this year,” Alikhani said in a written statement.
The PED, she said, “has always prioritized K-3 Plus” by tapping other sources of funding to maximize the number of students served.
In any case, the state’s handling of the cuts has triggered intense criticism.
Stewart, the Albuquerque Democrat and a vocal critic of PED, said it doesn’t make sense to cut so deeply in some districts while largely sparing or even increasing others.
“They’re really undermining a program that has proven its worth,” Stewart said.
Albuquerque Public Schools will see a 40 percent reduction in the number of students funded by the state this summer, compared with last year, according to legislative analysts. Las Cruces will see a 34 percent hit, and Deming a 48 percent cut.
Rio Rancho, Santa Fe and Hobbs, by contrast, will see cuts of about 15 percent.
And some districts will get increases — Zuni Public Schools is starting a new program entirely and Clovis will see a substantial increase in the number of students funded, from 36 students enrolled last year to 280 funded this summer.
Officials with the state Public Education Department say they’re doing the best they can with limited funding. Generally speaking, the department cut districts about 15 percent, based on their average enrollment over a three-year period.
And because K-3 Plus enrollment has been growing, that means districts are often seeing cuts of greater than 15 percent when compared with the most recent summer.
Some districts also wanted to participate for the first time or add schools this summer — which PED said it accommodated if the new programs started in July, after the start of the new fiscal year. The department wanted to provide at least some funding to each district that requested it, PED officials said.
The program cuts should not have been a surprise, Alikhani said.
The state warned districts in a meeting in February that “the historic high levels of funding and student interest (especially when not projected accurately on the front-end) could not be sustained during tougher fiscal times” and the state encouraged districts to push their programs back to July to help, Alikhani said.
Albuquerque was among 13 districts that pushed back its K-3 Plus start date, but not all the way to July, according to PED. A spokeswoman for Albuquerque Public Schools said scheduling conflicts kept the district from moving the start date that far back, in part because some elementary schools operate year-round.
A Rio Rancho spokeswoman offered a similar explanation, saying her district couldn’t delay until July because it would have pushed the end of K-3 Plus too close to the beginning of the regular school year.
Some districts say the state failed to meet an April 15 deadline in state law to notify schools about the grant awards. Rio Rancho and Albuquerque, for example, said they received award letters dated May 1.
Rio Rancho says it didn’t actually get the letter until May 8.
The Public Education Department says it published a spreadsheet containing awards on April 18, a few days late in part because April 15 fell on a Saturday. The spreadsheet was posted online in a spot where districts know to look for grant awards, a department official said, and there were follow-up notifications after that.
Notification aside, Albuquerque Public Schools officials said the depth of the cuts came as a surprise.
The district reduced its application to 3,744 students, slightly below the 3,887 students it had initially asked for in the previous year.
But even the reduced request was cut by 20 percent, to 2,989 students.
“We were so shocked,” said Carrie Robin Brunder, the director of government affairs and policy for Albuquerque Public Schools.
The timing left the district scrambling, she said.
“Families were relying on K-3 Plus, and when we had to tell them we couldn’t have it at their school anymore, those families were struggling to find alternative places for their kids,” Brunder said.
The Public Education Department contends some districts — APS and Las Cruces among them — exacerbated their cuts by underestimating in previous years how many students they would enroll.
Last summer, for example, Albuquerque Public Schools applied for funding for 3,887 students and actually ended up with 4,963.
So this year’s cut looks worse, in part, because APS enrolled so many unexpected students last year.
APS, however, says the state used to encourage enrolling as many students as possible. The district released a letter from the state in which PED said it would pay for any extra students who showed up last summer.
Regardless of who’s at fault, it’s clear that thousands of fewer students will participate in K-3 Plus this year.
Kim Vesely, research and special projects officer for Rio Rancho Public Schools, said the “real issue here is that education in general is not sufficiently funded to meet all students’ needs” — something that’s the subject of a lawsuit in state District Court.
Jo Galvan, a spokeswoman for Las Cruces Public Schools, said it’s incredibly important to ensure young students start the year ready to learn and make progress. The district managed to offset some of the state funding cut by finding money elsewhere, she said, but not enough to serve as many students as last year.
“It’s a huge impact when you have a cutback, in this program in particular,” Galvan said.
Alikhani suggested more changes may be in store.
The Public Education Department, she said, will analyze the results of standardized tests taken by students and the grades awarded to schools overall. The goal will be to ensure the state sends grant money to districts that put it to good use and see results, she said.
“Moving forward, return-on-investment may be the better way to consider grant-making to districts and charters,” Alikhani said. “Districts and schools should be conducting similar analyses to ensure that they were not igniting conflict and strife over a program that they may not have been implementing well.”
The department has also suggested that the Legislature grant it multiyear budget authority, which would improve flexibility given that the July 1 start of the fiscal year falls right in the middle of the summer.
The PED leadership under Republican Gov. Susana Martinez will have only one more summer overseeing K-3 Plus. Martinez’s term ends in 2018.
Democratic state lawmakers, in any case, have broached the idea of legislation that would make the awarding of K-3 Plus funding more formulaic and less discretionary, so districts have a better idea of what they will get.