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WED: New Mexico Students Fall Behind In Math And Reading, + More



New Mexico Elementary Student Proficiency Falls Significantly - By Cedar Attanasio, Associated Press / Report For America

The proficiency of New Mexico's elementary students in math and reading has dropped significantly amid the pandemic and only 31% have that proficiency, according to a review of preliminary academic data made public on Wednesday.

The drop in math and reading proficiency from 37% in the 2018-2019 school year, before the pandemic began, has prompted some legislators to suggest that elementary students should spend longer hours in class or face a longer school year.

The report by legislative analysts presented to the powerful Legislative Finance Committee estimated that students lost between 10 and 60 days of learning time because of the coronavirus pandemic. Even before the pandemic, New Mexico students spent fewer school days than their counterparts in many other states. Some rural New Mexico schools have four-day school weeks.

Amid the pandemic, the state's students faced school closures, were absent more frequently, and many had limited access to online learning.

Nonpartisan legislative policy researchers said in the report that about half of the state's school districts rejected funding for extra school days because of criticism from parents and staff.

The extra school funding has been part of a yearslong effort by the Legislature to increase learning time for students while allowing communities the local control to accept or reject additional time in school for students.

Some legislators said after the report was released that the state should consider mandating 10 and 25 days to the school year. New Mexico students must be in school 180 days annually but some schools get waivers allowing their students to spend as few 150 days if those days are proportionally longer.

"Maybe we need to do more mandates, take education more serious and have a sense of urgency," said Sen. Bill Tallman, a Democrat from Albuquerque.

Others criticized longer school years for children, calling for more research and days off from school for Indigenous holidays important in many school districts.

"Assimilation in Indian country — that has been the purpose of (education) and adding on 25 days the calendar takes those kids out of my community 25 more days," said Jeremy Oyenque, Director of Youth and Learning at Santa Clara Pueblo, an Indigenous tribe north of Santa Fe.

Oyenque told committee members on Tuesday that extended learning days often ignored tribal religious holidays — forcing students to choose between their culture and being marked as absent.

Mandating an increase in school days would most dramatically impact a small number of rural school districts that have four-day school weeks. They are allowed to cram more school hours into longer days to give students the shorter school week.

"Up in my district there are quite a lot of schools that go four days. And I think they spend less time putting up their pencils and more time studying," said Rep. Jack Chatfield, a Republican from the northeastern community of Mosquero. "I would really encourage us to do a little bit of research as to how those schools with a four-day school (week) compare in their testing."

The legislative report suggests the drop in learning proficiency from 39% to 31% could be even worse than the preliminary data suggests because student testing was optional and likely drew students who had better access to school during the pandemic.

Also, some students who took the tests at home got help from parents and scored higher than they should have, the report said.

The testing is required by the federal government but the New Mexico Public Education Department received a testing waiver because of the pandemic. Normally, 95% of the state's students must be tested but the waiver allowed as little as 1% to be tested.

Testing cited in the report included around 80% of elementary students, researchers said. White students were significantly overrepresented in the testing by around 2.5%.

Groups that had less access to remote learning during the pandemic—Native American students, students with disabilities, and low-income students — were underrepresented in the testing by between around 2.5% and around 9%.

New Mexico Races To Spend Federal Rental Assistance - By Morgan Lee, Associated Press

State agencies spent federal pandemic aid at a furious pace during the month of August, channeling about $630 million in efforts to bolster unemployment reserves, provide emergency housing assistance and promote COVID-19 vaccination efforts, the Legislature's budget and accountability office said Wednesday.

An update on pandemic relief spending from the office shows that New Mexico agencies have pushed out more than half of their $10.5 billion share of federal relief tied to the pandemic.

Of the $6.3 billion spent so far, about 70% has gone toward unemployment benefits to prop up household income amid economic turmoil associated with COVID-19.

State finance officials are racing against a deadline at the end of September to distribute at least $104 million in federal rental assistance to residential landlords and tenants or risk forfeiting additional money to the program.

As of mid-September, the state had spent or assigned $51 million of that federal rental assistance. State finance officials are providing assurances that New Mexico will meet the deadline as it partners with courts to avoid housing disruptions.

New Mexico is among about a dozen states that still have a moratorium on evictions for people who cannot afford to pay rent.

Federal supplementary unemployment benefits of $300 a week expired in early September, but New Mexico is allowing a 13-week extension of standard benefit payments.

The federal government will pay for half of those extended benefits — as long as the state's unemployment rate exceeds 6.5%. The August unemployment rate was 7.2%, down from 7.6% in July.

Unemployment eligibility notices were sent to 11,000 state residents, but many already may have exhausted their benefits during the pandemic.

Full enrollment for a 13-week period would cost the state unemployment insurance trust $23.5 million a month. Ordinarily payroll taxes underwrite the trust.

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has lifted the state's once-aggressive pandemic-related restrictions on public gatherings and business operations, though masks are still required in public, indoor settings.

About 4,700 have died from COVID-19 across the state of 2.1 million residents. Nearly 250,000 cases have been diagnosed.

At the same time, spending has been painstakingly slow when it comes to $200 million set aside from the state general fund for grants to small- and medium-sized businesses that can offset rent, lease or mortgage payments as they rehire staff.

New Mexico Finance Authority CEO Marquita Russel told legislators that about 17% of applications are declined because businesses are rehiring contract workers and not staff.

"We have only funded about $10 million outright," Russel said of applications to the grant program. "We have additional ones that we are currently working through."

New Push On To Expand Nuclear Radiation Compensation In US - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

A bipartisan group of lawmakers is renewing a push to expand a U.S. compensation program for people who were exposed to radiation following uranium mining and nuclear testing carried out during the Cold War.

Advocates have been trying for years to bring awareness to the lingering effects of nuclear fallout surrounding the Trinity Site in southern New Mexico, where the U.S. military detonated the first atomic bomb, and on the Navajo Nation, where more than 30 million tons of uranium ore were extracted over decades to support U.S. nuclear activities.

Under legislation introduced Wednesday by U.S. Sens. Ben Ray Luján, a Democrat from New Mexico, and Mike Crapo, a Republican from Idaho, other sites across the American West would be added to the list of places affected by fallout and radiation exposure. Eligibility also would be expanded to include certain workers in the industry after 1971, such as miners.

The legislation also would increase the amount of compensation someone can receive to $150,000 and provide coverage for additional forms of cancer.

A multibillion-dollar defense spending package approved last year included an apology to New Mexico, Nevada, Utah and other states affected by radiation from nuclear testing, but no action was taken on legislation that sought to change and broaden the compensation program.

Advocates, including those who testified before Congress earlier this year, say it's time to do so, especially because the existing provisions are set to expire next July. The legislation would extend the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, or RECA, another 19 years.

Tina Cordova, a cancer survivor and co-founder of the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium, said she has been working on the legislation for months with other residents of places affected by radiation, from Indigenous communities in New Mexico to Gaum.

"We put forth language to make certain the bill went far enough to help as many people as possible," she said. "This is a make-or-break time for all the downwinders and post-71 uranium workers that have been left out of the original RECA bill."

While efforts to expand the program have been years in the making, advocates say there is broader interest now because more people would stand to lose access to compensation funds if the law expires. They also acknowledge that some members of Congress might argue that there's not enough money to bankroll the proposal.

"We won't settle for that answer any longer. Imagine the insult added to our injury of such a statement," Cordova said. "There is always money when there's political will. This is a social, environmental and restorative justice issue that we, as a nation, can no longer look away from."

On the Navajo Nation, uranium mining has left a legacy of death, disease and environmental contamination. That includes the largest spill of radioactive material in the United States, when 94 million gallons of radioactive tailings and wastewater spewed onto tribal lands in the Church Rock area in western New Mexico in 1979. It happened just three months after the partial meltdown of a nuclear reactor at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania, which got far more attention at the time.

With hundreds of abandoned uranium mines and radioactive waste still to be cleaned up, Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez said residents of the nation's largest Indigenous reservation have been exposed to dangerous levels of radiation for years and have endured a wide range of illnesses as a result, with some dying prematurely.

Nez called an expansion of the program and extension of the trust fund a matter of justice.

"We look forward to advocating for the advancement of this legislation and to encourage consideration of additional provisions that would advance the objectives of justice and fairness represented by this bill," he said.

Democratic U.S. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández of New Mexico is helping lead the push in the House. House Republicans who are co-sponsoring include Reps. Yvette Herrell of New Mexico and Burgess Owens of Utah.

For Sen. Luján, the fight for compensation started in 2010 when he was a congressman.

"While there can never be a price placed on one's health or the life of a loved one, Congress has an opportunity to do right by all of those who sacrificed in service of our national security by strengthening RECA," he said in a statement.

New Mexico Reports 719 COVID-19 Cases And 19 Additional DeathsKUNM, Associated Press

New Mexico health officials reported 719 additional COVID-19 cases on Wednesday and 19 additional deaths.

That brings the total number of deaths of New Mexico residents from COVID-19 to 4,719. Bernalillo County saw the highest number of cases with 212, followed by Sandoval County with 50 and 47 in Eddy County.

The Department of Health identified at least one positive COVID-19 case in residents and/or staff in the past month at 67 long-term care facilities in the state.

There are currently 359 people hospitalized with COVID-19 in New Mexico. Health officials said on Wednesday that 70% of New Mexicans 18 and older have been fully vaccinated.

The Navajo Nation on Tuesday reported 36 more COVID-19 cases, but no additional deaths.

Officials say all Navajo Nation executive branch employees will need to be fully vaccinated against the virus by the end of this month or submit to regular testing.

Penitentiary Inmate Found Dead In Cell In Suspected SuicideAssociated Press

A 22-year-old inmate at the state penitentiary near Santa Fe has been found dead in his cell in a suspected suicide.

Matthew Culley of Santa Fe was serving time for tampering with evidence and aggravated battery with a deadly weapon when he died Monday, Corrections Department spokesman Eric Harrison said.

Culley had been connected to several violent incidents in the five years before his death, the Santa Fe New Mexican  reported.

Culley was repeatedly sentenced to probation but was sent to prison in February after violating terms of probation in a 2017 case involving the stabbing of a store employee.

He had pleaded guilty in the 2017 case.

Report Finds Pilot In Deadly Balloon Crash Had Drugs In SystemKOB-TV, Associated Press

A report from the Federal Aviation Administration shows the pilot of a hot air balloon that crashed in New Mexico in June had marijuana and cocaine in his system.

Pilot Nicholas Meleski died along with his four passengers after the balloon descended in the sky above Albuquerque, hit power lines and crashed into a busy intersection.

Meleski's family told Albuquerque station KOB-TV that they are evaluating a copy of the toxicology report and asking for privacy.

The FAA did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment on the report.

The National Transportation Safety Board has yet to rule on the cause of the June 26 crash. While the board hasn't provided much insight into why the balloon collided with power lines, a preliminary report issued in July detailed the moments leading up the crash as seen from surveillance video from surrounding businesses.

Witnesses also told investigators that the balloon's envelop separated from the basket after hitting the power lines and floated away. It was found a couple miles south of the crash site.

The passengers killed in the crash were Mary Martinez, her husband Martin and their friends Susan and John Montoya.

Martin Martinez worked for years as an Albuquerque police officer and later as an officer with the Albuquerque school district. Mary Martinez, a mother of two, was a volunteer and loved to help people. Susan Montoya was an assistant school principal and her husband worked with special education students.

Federal officials said the balloon crash was the deadliest recorded in New Mexico's history and the second deadliest in the U.S. since 2016. New Mexico is home to an annual international balloon fiesta that draws hundreds of pilots and tens of thousands of spectators from around the world every October.

Albuquerque Officials Lay Out Plan To Combat Violent Crime - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

The mayor of New Mexico's largest city and other officials say they have a plan to address Albuquerque's record homicides and other violent crime. 

Mayor Tim Keller presented details of the plan Tuesday. It includes 40 items that range from closing what many have referred to as a revolving door in the justice system to bolstering prevention and mental health programs. 

The plan came together following a series of meetings over the summer with city administrators, law enforcement, court officials and others. 

Keller, who is running for reelection, has been facing heat for not being able to contain crime in the city. 

"We called everyone to the table because violent crime is unacceptable," the mayor said in a statement. "We are sick of it, we are tired of the dead ends of past 'one off' efforts, and we are holding each other accountable to do our part."

Keller's administration acknowledged that not each individual solution is unanimously supported by those who participated in the initiative but that every item has support from multiple partners and agencies.

Supporters see the measures specified in the plan as actions that will result in systemic change. They say the measures can be implemented through changes in state law, action by the city council and administratively by agencies and departments.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham also touted the effort, saying she believes that tackling violent crime will have to be done across jurisdictions and by different branches of government.

Republican lawmakers in August had called on the Democratic governor to convene an immediate special legislative session to address what they described as an "out of control" problem that has become a public emergency.

The governor has said she has specific public safety goals for the session that starts in January.

Albuquerque Police Chief Harold Medina has been visibly frustrated in recent weeks, particularly after four police officers were shot and injured after responding to reports of a robbery.

"Ask any officer, and all they want is the opportunity to do what they signed up for — to fight crime and keep the community safe," Medina said in a statement. "But we can't achieve both goals when people who commit crimes are not held accountable, and they are not getting services they need."

The Albuquerque police force also is in the middle of reforms mandated by a consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice. Some officers and others have said the situation has tied the department's hands.

Sylvester Stanley, the city's superintendent of police reform, said Albuquerque already is well down the path of reform and that the mayor and city council are committed to investing in the police department. 

Biden Nominee Confirmed As Federal Judge For New Mexico - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

Las Cruces-based defense and civil rights attorney Margaret Strickland was confirmed Tuesday by the U.S. Senate to serve as a federal judge in New Mexico, where two prior nominees from former President Donald Trump were sidelined in the runup to the 2020 election.

Strickland was among President Joe Biden's first slate of nominees to the federal bench announced in March. She was confirmed Tuesday by a 52-45 vote of the Senate, including supportive votes by U.S. Sens. Martin Heinrich and Ben Ray Luján.

Prior nominations by Trump to fill two vacancies on the U.S. District Court in New Mexico were put on hold in September 2020 by Heinrich and Sen. Tom Udall, Luján's predecessor. They said Trump had politicized the judicial nominations process blatantly as a tool for campaigning shortly before the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and deferred the vetting process until after the 2020 election.

Another New Mexico U.S. District Court vacancy could go to Biden nominee David Urias, who has worked for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

Heinrich praised Strickland for her familiarity with the Southwest region along the U.S. border with Mexico and her work ethic. 

The New Mexico U.S. District Court has relied on visiting judges to relieve pressure on its robust dockets of immigration and drug trafficking cases. 

Republican Judge Kea W. Riggs filled a vacancy on the local U.S. District Court in 2019, and Trump also opened the way in 2017 for former Roswell-based attorney Joel Carson to join the 10th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals to take the place of Paul Joseph Kelly.

Strickland takes on the lifetime judicial appointment at age 41. She started her career at the Law Offices of the Public Defender for the state of New Mexico, from 2006 through 2011. She continued her career as a partner at McGraw & Strickland, representing more than 70 clients at trial and arguing before the state Supreme Court.

Among civil rights claims, Strickland represented Jillian and Andrew Beck in a lawsuit against two Las Cruces police officers on allegations of brutality and civil rights violations. The couple prevailed in a jury trial and received a $1.4 million settlement award in 2018.

Luján said that Strickland brings professional diversity to the federal courts as a former public defender.

New Mexico Monitors School Funds In Ex-Leader's Fraud Case - By Cedar Attanasio Associated Press / Report For America

New Mexico education officials say they are demanding additional oversight of a narrow slice of federal funding awarded to Albuquerque Public Schools following a criminal probe into a former employee.

District officials reported the alleged fraud this summer after staff first noticed irregularities in contracts in the career and technical education department in 2018. That led to a criminal investigation regarding about $5 million in questionable contracts.

The New Mexico Public Education Department announced additional oversight on Tuesday, following the release Monday of a criminal indictment of state Rep. Sheryl Williams Stapleton, who served as the district's technical education department coordinator.

She was fired from her job and resigned from the Legislature. 

She also denied wrongdoing and said through an attorney Monday that she will fight the charges, which include 28 counts related to fraud, tax evasion and using her position to serve her own financial interests.

State officials say they will withhold around $1 million in federal funds until the district hires an ​​independent auditor, and trains staff on an improved plan to prevent waste and fraud. The district faces deadlines to meet some requirements in October.

State Education Secretary Kurt Steinhaus said his department "takes seriously the recent allegations" and "is committed to working cooperatively" with Albuquerque Public Schools.

Albuquerque OKs No-Fares Pilot Program For City Buses - Associated Press

Albuquerque's public transit system won't charge fares for riding buses during a 12-month experiment starting Jan. 1.

The City Council voted Monday night to approve the pilot program after previously deferring the vote several times.

The council approved funding for the long-discussed project several months ago by setting aside $3 million to offset revenue laws, but several members recently had concerns about security on buses once fares aren't' required.

The council voted 8-0 after being briefed by officials from the Department of Municipal Development's security division.

Supporters of the no-fare program said it will help low-income people who rely on the bus system to get around.

Airman On Trial In Arizona In Death Of Mennonite Woman - By Felicia Fonseca Associated Press

Sasha Krause was a devout Mennonite woman, often immersed in books, who easily quoted scripture and occasionally taught Sunday school before her body was found in a forest clearing in northern Arizona.

Mark Gooch was raised in a Mennonite community in Wisconsin but rejected the faith and joined the U.S. Air Force. He was stationed at a base in metropolitan Phoenix when he was arrested and charged in Krause's death last year.

There is no indication the two knew each other. Prosecutors will try to convince a jury that Gooch had a general disdain for Mennonites and drove more than seven hours to Farmington, New Mexico, where Krause lived, kidnapped her and fatally shot her. 

Jury selection began Tuesday in the largely circumstantial case. Gooch, 22, faces up to life in prison if he is convicted of first-degree murder and other charges.

Krause, 27, disappeared on Jan. 18, 2020, as she was gathering material for Sunday school. Her body was found more than a month later outside Flagstaff, Arizona, with her wrists bound with duct tape. 

Gooch's attorney, Bruce Griffen, has said that any connection Gooch had with the Mennonite community or conversations he had with others about the faith's followers is not evidence of "homicidal ill will."

Sheriff's officials who searched for Krause and those who investigated her death, along with cellphone data and ballistics experts, and people from Krause's community are expected to testify in the trial in Coconino County Superior Court.

Jury selection continues Wednesday, somewhat hampered by coronavirus protocols that limit the number of people who can be in the courtroom at the same time.

Authorities said they tied Gooch to Krause's disappearance and death using cellphone records, Gooch's financial statements and receipts, and surveillance video from Luke Air Force Base. A state crime lab report showed a bullet taken from Krause's skull was fired from a .22-caliber rifle Gooch owned.

Gooch's cellphone was the only one communicating with the same cell towers as Krause's phone before hers dropped off west of Farmington, authorities said. Prosecutors aren't sure why he targeted Krause.

Gooch told authorities he was in the area when Krause went missing because he had been checking out Mennonite searches for the fellowship. He denied playing any part in her disappearance or death, according to sheriff's records.

Griffen unsuccessfully sought to keep an expert for the prosecution from testifying about the cellphone data that he referred to as "weak science." He also sought to limit mentions of text messages conversations that Gooch had with his brothers that referred to Mennonites.

Neither Griffen nor the prosecutor's office responded to requests for comment ahead of the trial.

Gooch never officially became a member of the Mennonite church, he told investigators. He said he joined the military to escape what he saw as a difficult, sheltered and restricted life, according to sheriff's records. He worked in equipment maintenance at the Phoenix-area air base where he was stationed in October 2019.

Krause was part of a group of conservative Mennonites where women wear head coverings and long dresses or skirts. She moved to Farmington from Texas, where she taught school. 

On the one-year anniversary of her disappearance, the Mennonite community sent remembrances to Krause's parents. Krause's students said she was a good teacher who read to them and played games with them. Krause preached hard work, even if it went unrecognized, others said.

She spoke Spanish and French. The community remembered her deep, dancing brown eyes and her quiet mannerisms, saying her time in Farmington was short but her impact long-lasting.

Paul Kaufman, general manager of Lamp and Light Publishers where Krause worked, said emotions that slowly were healing have bubbled up with the start of the trial. He said the community wants to feel safe and for whoever was responsible for killing Krause to repent.

"We did not see who showed up at the church that night and kidnapped Sasha," he said. "We did not see who committed that horrible act. We didn't see that. But God saw that."

GPS For Defendants In Bernalillo County To Be Monitored 24-7 - Associated Press

Defendants awaiting trial in Bernalillo County who wear GPS devices will be monitored more closely from now on.

The New Mexico Judiciary has announced the implementation of a plan next month to track ankle devices on felony defendants around-the-clock.

The Second Judicial District Court and Bernalillo County Metropolitan Court manage the electronic monitoring devices on weekdays during business hours. Now, new pretrial services staff at the Administrative Office of the Courts will watch the alert system nights, weekends and holidays.

If staff receive a "high alert," they will call the defendant and determine if there was a violation of pretrial release. Staff can also order a bench warrant for the defendant's arrest and check on the defendant's victim.

GPS monitoring devices set off an alert if a defendant has left house arrest, violated curfew, travels to an off-limits area or tampered with the device.

Navajo Nation Reports 36 More COVID-19 Cases, No New Deaths - Associated Press

The Navajo Nation on Tuesday reported 36 more COVID-19 cases, but no additional deaths.

The latest numbers pushed the tribe's totals to 33,548 confirmed COVID-19 cases from the virus since the pandemic began more than a year ago. The known death toll remained at 1,431.

Navajo officials are urging people to get vaccinated, wear masks while in public and minimize their travel. 

Based on cases from Sept. 3-16, the Navajo Department of Health issued an advisory for 36 communities due to uncontrolled spread of COVID-19.

Officials said all Navajo Nation executive branch employees will need to be fully vaccinated against the virus by the end of this month or submit to regular testing.

The new rules apply to full, part-time and temporary employees, including those working for tribal enterprises like utilities, shopping centers and casinos. 

Any worker who does not show proof of vaccination by Sept. 29 must be tested every two weeks or face discipline.

The tribe's reservation is the country's largest at 27,000 square miles and it covers parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.