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The New Mexico Legislature is likely to add about 4.4 percent to the state public education budget during the 2021 session, said State Sen. Bill Soules, D-Doña Ana, who chairs the Senate Education Committee.
The 2020 legislature increased public education’s general fund budget to about $3.4 billion.
The state is under court order to provide constitutionally mandated “educational sufficiency” to all students as a result of a state district court judge’s 2018 ruling in the Yazzie v Martinez lawsuit.
“I agree with the lawsuit,” Soules said. “We need to do better for our kids and education.”
At the same time, the legislature “must be careful and cautious that we aren’t wasting money,” he said. “It would be wonderful if we started providing more than sufficiency.”
In addition to an increase in the amount of recurring revenue that was expected to be available to legislators during the 2021 session, Soules said there also will be a large amount of non-recurring revenue that can be used for one-time projects.
Some of those funds, he said, should be used to address broadband access so students can do their schoolwork remotely without having to drive around to find a hotspot. Spending $500 million “to insure we have broadband access everywhere makes sense for the whole state,” said Soules, a retired principal and classroom teacher, and former member of the Las Cruces Public Schools (LCPS) Board of Education.
Nonrecurring revenue should also be used to help public schools build vocational tech centers, Soules said, and to build advanced manufacturing centers at high schools so students can graduate with “high quality, industry-level certificates.”
The money should also pay for teacher professional development, he said.
Soules said legislators disagree with the New Mexico Public Education Department regarding control of some education dollars, but most of the funding is under the control of local school boards.
“I think everyone recognizes we’ve got to pay teachers better,” Soules said, so school districts can hire and retain better teachers and provide better educational services to the children who are most at risk.
There are 89 school districts in New Mexico, including three in Doña Ana County: LCPS, Gadsden Independent School District and Hatch Valley Public Schools.
Soules said he also is concerned that the state may be putting too much money into cash reserves. About $2 billion “is sitting there not invested in the future of New Mexico, just protecting ‘what if,’” he said.
Soules, who begins his third four-year term in the New Mexico Senate when the 2021 session convenes Jan. 19, has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in psychology and a Ph.D. in education and psychology from New Mexico State University.