Voters face school issues

Gary Mitchell

Area educators and legislators are reacting with cautious and mixed views regarding the two state constitutional education amendments facing voters on Sept. 23.
Amendment No. 1 would do away with the existing Department of Education and create instead a cabinet-level public education department headed by a secretary of education.
Amendment No. 2 would provide for a limited additional distribution from the state’s permanent funds to make available more money for public schools to implement and maintain educational reforms.
State Rep. Anna Crook, R-Clovis, said she supports the revamping of the state Department of Education.
“I’m in support of having a secretary of education,” she said. “Anything new is always kind of scary, but our education system the way it is hasn’t worked. Gov. Gary Johnson tried to do this very thing, but we never could get anywhere with it. I’m a bottom-line person. As long as it gets done, that’s the important thing.”
However, Crook balks at taking extra money out of the Permanent Fund because it sets bad precedent.
“It just truly, truly frightens me,” she said. “I come from the old school. You have to have something in reserve. Once the gate’s opened, the emergencies will continue.”
When asked how should the state and school districts fund the already mandated reforms and teachers’ salary increases, Crook said, “You cut your spending. You have to prioritize. Government’s the same way.”
Clovis superintendent of schools Neil Nuttall said he unabashedly supports Amendment No. 2.
“I believe when our Legislature passed House Bill 212 as part of the No Child Left Behind Act, they wrote the check,” he said. “It was crystal clear how it would be funded, and that would be through the changes to the Permanent Fund. I think this amendment must be passed to make good on the check that’s already been written.”
Nuttall said he isn’t worried about legislators raiding the Permanent Fund unduly because “there are enough safeguards in place.”
Nuttall declined to comment extensively on the first amendment other than to note the New Mexico State School Board Association and the New Mexico Superintendents Association have both “endorsed Amendment No. 1.”
State Rep. Joe Campos, D-Santa Rosa, said he had more concerns with Amendment No. 1 than with No. 2.
“With me having so many school boards in my district, many of them have concerns about the secretary of education position,” he said. “For example, every time you change governors, what impact will it have on local school boards and districts? They’re very concerned about consistency.”
However, the position has certain advantages as well, such as being able to address issues quickly and having greater accountability, Campos said.
“You have to go with what you feel is the critical issue,” he said. “It has its pros and cons.”
Campos said the state’s education system desperately needs the additional funding to come from the Permanent Fund, as advocated in Amendment No. 2.
“Tapping into the Permanent Fund with the safeguards we have isn’t bad,” he said. “But I hope it doesn’t last the whole time span. We’re in a critical situation with our education system. We need an injection right now. We needed a raise to keep the best teachers in Clovis and Portales and keep them from crossing over into Texas. We can’t afford to lose any more.”
Steve Gamble, president of Eastern New Mexico University, said the second amendment is great for public school education.
“I applaud the governor for trying to do more than just talk about education,” Gamble said. “In other words, trying to get a significant resource base established to make our K-12 education even better.”
Texico superintendent of schools R.L.. Richards said he has been mulling over the pros and cons of both amendments.
“My biggest fear (of No. 1) is that the secretary of education will take authority away from local school boards,” he said. “I think the best thing for students is that community members are making decisions for the benefit of local students. I’m not afraid of a secretary of education, but I am fearful of decisions made from a Santa Fe basis will adversely affect Texico students.”
Richards said his biggest concern about the second amendment is what happens were it not to pass.
“My fear is if (it) doesn’t pass, it will send a signal to the Legislature that the people of New Mexico don’t want to invest in education for their children,” he said. “That’s my concern: What kind of message will it be sending? And how will it affect the kids?”
Scott Barthel, State Board of Education District 9 member, said he would like to see his position eradicated under the new plan for a secretary of education.
“A secretary of education would help New Mexico get more education for the money,” he stated in a letter to the CNJ. “As the facts about our spending show, the taxpayer has been more than generous with our schools, what we really need is leadership. We need to quit blaming the taxpayer. The voters should hold the SBE fully accountable for the condition of our schools and vote it out of existence.”
Barthel advocates voting in favor of No. 1 and against No. 2.
“If New Mexico votes for the secretary of education, we don’t need new money for the schools,” he said.