THURS: State Has $37M Plan To Recruit Teachers, + More

Sep 9, 2021

New Mexico's $37 Million Plan To Recruit More Teachers - Cedar Attanasio, Associated Press

State education officials are offering to pay for the salaries of 500 teaching assistants and offer them tuition subsidies in a two-year effort to jumpstart recruitment in K-12 schools.

"This program can serve as a pathway for more people to enter the education profession," Public Education Secretary Designate Kurt Steinhaus said in an announcement Wednesday.

Educational assistants help out in the classroom but are not full-fledged teachers. They can't lead instruction or implement curriculum, and they don't need to have a degree. This year many have served as monitors for teachers presenting remotely.

The $37 million New Mexico Teacher Fellows program is funded by the education department's share of $1 billion in federal money from relief packages passed in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Around 90% of those federal funds are being sent directly to school districts. On Thursday, the education department released a  database that shows some of the initial spending, mostly on laptops and other emergency tools for remote learning.

At the height of the pandemic, the education department used initial federal funds for emergency school needs like protective gear, temporary WiFi hotspots, and online learning supports like software.

But the largest portion of funding is yet to be spent.

Wednesday's teacher fellowship announcement signals a new phase in the department's efforts trying to leverage the temporary windfall of federal money for a longer-term goal: reducing the state's chronic educator shortage by training candidates in-state. Around 600 teaching positions were vacant in the state in 2020.

While the pandemic forced fewer retirements than education officials feared, New Mexico is tied for the oldest group of teachers in the nation. Attempts to bring teachers from outside the country have served as an imperfect stopgap, and substitute teachers are in short supply.

The fellowship program aims to keep teaching assistants on the job and advance their careers so that they can fill higher-paying jobs in the future before they leave for another industry with higher pay.

Teacher assistants earn around $25,000 per year, at or below minimum wage in some New Mexico towns. Even for part-time work, the positions are not competitive with entry-level jobs in other industries, like hospitality and construction.

Education department officials hope local districts will take advantage of the state paying for base salaries to increase pay, for example by using a school district's own federal funds.

The education department plans to start awarding teaching fellowships by the end of the year.

The 500 fellows will have access to mentors outside their school, and a $4,000-per-year education stipend to pursue a degree at a community college or start towards a higher degree.

They don't even have to study education and could put the stipend toward a degree useful on a school campus. That includes nursing, social work and speech pathology, said Gwen Perea Warniment, ​​deputy secretary of Teaching, Learning and Assessment.

"All of them are important for school, and we're in dire need of all positions," Warniment said.

Farmers Restore Native Grasslands As Groundwater Disappears – Tammy Webber, Associated Press

Tim Black's cell phone dings, signaling the time to reverse sprinklers spitting water across a pie-shaped section of grass that will provide pasture for his cattle.

It's important not to waste a drop. His family's future depends on it.

For decades, the Texas Panhandle was green with cotton, corn and wheat. Wells drew a thousand gallons (3,785 liters) a minute from the seemingly bottomless Ogallala aquifer, allowing farmers to thrive despite frequent dry spells and summer heat.

But now farmers face a difficult reckoning. Groundwater that sustained livelihoods for generations is disappearing, which has created another problem across the southern plains: When there isn't enough rain or groundwater to germinate crops, soil can blow away — just as it did during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.

"We wasted the hell out of the water," says Black, recalling how farmers irrigated when he was a kid — as if it would last forever. Water flooded furrows or sprayed in high arcs before farmers adopted more efficient center-pivot systems that gave the Southwest its polka-dot landscape.

His grandfather could reach water with a post-hole digger. Now, Black is lucky to draw 50 gallons a minute from high-pressure wells, some almost 400 feet deep. He buys bottled water for his family because the well water is salty.

ENDANGERED AQUIFERS

The problem isn't unique to the Ogallala. Aquifers from California's Central Valley farm country  to India  and China are being depleted. But the 174,000-square-mile  Ogallala — one of the world's largest — is vital to farmers and ranchers in parts of eight plains states from South Dakota southward.

The region produces almost one-third of U.S. commodity crops and livestock protein, which affects other agricultural industries, small businesses, land values and community tax bases, says Amy Kremen, project manager at the U.S. Department of Agriculture-funded Ogallala Water Coordinated Agriculture Project that supports water management.

But because water doesn't recharge easily in most areas, if it runs out, it could be gone for hundreds if not thousands of years.

Though groundwater in Texas can recharge to a degree, by percolating through playa lakes, many have been plowed over and no longer function.

And in Texas, along with parts of New Mexico and Oklahoma, water is disappearing more rapidly than elsewhere in the aquifer, also called the High Plains. Less-frequent rain linked to climate change means groundwater often is the only option for farmers, forcing tough choices.

Some are growing crops that require less water or investing in more efficient irrigation systems. Others, like Black, also are replacing cash crops with livestock and pastureland.

And more are returning land to its literal roots — by planting native grasses that green with the slightest rain and grow dense roots that hold soil in place.

"There's a reason Mother Nature selected those plants to be in those areas," says Nick Bamert, whose father started a Muleshoe-based seed company specializing in native grasses 70 years ago. "The natives ... will persist because they've seen the coldest winters and the hottest dry summers."

Black, who once grew mostly corn, plants such grass on corners of his fields, as pasture for his growing herd of cattle and as a cover crop between rows of wheat and annual grass.

The transition to cattle, he hopes, will allow his oldest son, Tyler, to stay on the land Black's grandparents began plowing 100 years ago. His younger son, Trent, "could see the writing on the wall" and is a data analyst near Dallas.

"You want your kids to come back, but damn, there's better ways to make a living than what we're doing," says Black, maneuvering his pickup through a pasture. "It's just too hard here with no water."

LOSING FARMLAND

Dry grass crackles underfoot as Jude Smith reaches an overlook at Muleshoe National Wildlife Refuge, established during the Great Depression and Dust Bowl to preserve native prairie and three spring-fed lakes.

It's mid-May and everything looks dead because there's been almost no rain for a year. The lakes — where the Ogallala should bubble up and tens of thousands of migrating Sandhill cranes gather in good years — are dry, too, save for muddy streaks darkening the lakebed. The water disappeared as nearby farmers struggled to pump enough groundwater to grow cotton.

Rain might not raise the water table much, says Smith, a biologist who manages the refuge. But the native prairie comes alive with even a trickle.

While nonnative grass dies during droughts, native grass goes dormant and the roots — up to 15 feet deep — hold soil.

Rain came this summer — about 16 inches so far — often in torrents. The refuge's lakes refilled from runoff and springs started running again, Smith says. Meanwhile, the native grasslands "look like Ireland."

The welcome rain hasn't allayed long-term worries about groundwater and droughts, says Black, the Muleshoe landowner. It came too late to help germinate spring crops, and farmers continued to irrigate.

The Texas Panhandle almost certainly will continue to be locked into extended periods of drought that have persisted across the Southwest for 20 years, says meteorologist Brad Rippey with the USDA.

"People that have been farming out there for a couple decades are concerned," he says, adding that drought could return this fall.

Already it billows off plowed fields during dry spells, including along the Texas-New Mexico border, where rippling piles of it — some 10-15 feet high — can clog fields, ditches and roadways. It blows off rooftops like snow, says Smith, who this spring found big mounds formed in his yard overnight.

Farmers have called him to ask if the wildlife refuge could buy their land, which it's not authorized to do.

"Everybody knows that ... the water's going away," he says, driving past abandoned farmhouses, tree stands that mark long-gone homesteads and rusted irrigation equipment. "Farmers do the best they can with what they've got, but I don't know how many more years we can do this."

There is reason for concern, experts say.

More than half the currently irrigated land in portions of western Texas, eastern New Mexico and the Oklahoma Panhandle could be lost by the end of the century — with 80% of those losses by 2060, according to a study published last year.

But areas throughout the aquifer also are vulnerable. The central part could lose up to 40% of irrigated area by 2100, with more than half the losses in the next 40 years.

Those losses might be slowed as farmers adapt to lower water levels, researchers say. But the projections underscore the need for planning and incentives in vulnerable areas.

NEW DUST BOWL ZONE

The USDA has identified a "Dust Bowl Zone" that covers parts of Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas vulnerable to severe wind erosion and where grasslands conservation is a priority.

Already, reestablishing native vegetation in the sandy soil over the Ogallala has proven difficult where irrigation ceased on former Kansas farmland. The same is true on land outside the Ogallala previously irrigated by rivers, including in Colorado's Arkansas River Valley, where agricultural land dried out before native grasses could be established.

With less rainfall, farmers likely will need to use some remaining groundwater to reestablish native grasses to avoid Dust Bowl conditions, says study co-author Meagan Schipanski, an associate professor of soil and crop sciences at Colorado State University.

"In an ideal world, there would be some forethought and incentives available" to help farmers make the transition "before there's not enough water there," Schipanski says.

Chris Grotegrut already has planted 75% of his family's 11,000 acres in native grasses; he uses it to graze cattle and sheep and plants wheat directly into native grass pastures.

The rest of the land, about an hour southwest of Amarillo, eventually will be planted in native grasses, too, says Grotegut, who's seen water levels rise — though not enough to return to full irrigation of his land.

Most farmers aren't transitioning fast enough as the water table drops "from the Panhandle damn near to the Oklahoma line," he says. "Maybe they're using the latest and greatest of equipment and technology in the field, but (that) will not totally offset the change that's coming to them,"

HELP FOR FARMERS

Many farmers will need incentives and help to transition to grasslands.

The federal crop insurance and conservation programs often work at cross purposes: Farmers sometimes plant crops even if they're likely to fail, because they're covered by insurance. And cultivating land often is more profitable than taking government payments to preserve or restore grasslands.

From 2016 through mid-2021, fewer than 328,000 acres were enrolled in the USDA's Grasslands Conservation Reserve Program in Dust Bowl Zone counties, according to USDA data. Enrollment for 2021 ended last month, but the USDA has not released the most recent totals.

Although grasslands also can be enrolled in other programs, there was a big push this summer to enroll more in the CRP grasslands program, which allows grazing and was authorized in the 2014 Farm Bill, says Zach Ducheneaux, head of the USDA's Farm Service Agency.

In Texas, fewer than 32,000 acres were enrolled in Dust Bowl counties over the past five years, and 60% of the Dust Bowl counties had no land enrolled.

So the agency sharply increased payments this summer, to a minimum $15 per acre — higher in priority counties — after they were reduced by the Trump administration, Ducheneaux says.

In Bailey County, where Black lives and no land was enrolled in the grasslands program, payments went from $4 to $20 per acre.

But Black, who took a couple hundred acres of native grasslands out of a federal conservation program last year to provide pasture for his cattle, says the higher payments won't convince him to enroll. "I can make more money without it" and won't be bound by any government restrictions, he says.

Bamert, from the seed company, says some farmers are planting native grasses on their own, rather than through government programs.

But the transition to grasslands and conservation also is hindered by an agricultural banking system that makes it difficult to obtain loans for anything other than conventional farming and equipment, as well as the need to pay off that equipment.

"If you give a producer a choice and flexibility, they're going to engage in soil health practices," says USDA's Ducheneaux, who is advocating for change. "They're not going to continue to stay stuck in that commodity cycle."

Among farmers, ranchers and even municipalities, "there seems to be a real connecting of the dots ... about water and soil stewardship," and it's driving cross-state conversations about solutions, says Kremen, from the Ogallala Water Coordinated Agriculture Project.

But farmers need programs that allow them to earn a living while they make the transition to grasslands over perhaps 15 years, she says.

"There's a hunger for action that wasn't there even five years ago," because of the severity of the water loss, Kremen says. "What's at stake is the vitality of communities that depend on this water and towns drying up and blowing away."

Airman's Attorney Aims To Limit Evidence At Murder Trial – Felicia Fonseca, Associated Press

The attorney for a U.S. Air Force airman accused of kidnapping and killing a Mennonite woman is arguing to limit evidence from being allowed at trial that prosecutors say ties him to the crime.

Mark Gooch has pleaded not guilty to the shooting death of Sasha Krause, 27. The Mennonite woman disappeared from her church community outside Farmington, New Mexico, on Jan. 18, 2020, as she was gathering material for a Sunday school class.

Her body was found more than a month later in a forest clearing outside Flagstaff, Arizona, her hands bound by duct tape.

A Coconino County Superior Court judge in Arizona will consider motions Thursday to determine what evidence can be admitted in Gooch's trial, which is scheduled to start later this month. He faces life in prison if convicted of first-degree murder and other charges.

Gooch attended the hearing virtually from jail with a black eye, the result of a fight a few days ago with another inmate, Coconino County sheriff's spokesman Jon Paxton said. Authorities are investigating what led up to it.

Defense attorney Bruce Griffen has asked that evidence be excluded from trial on Gooch's whereabouts leading up to Krause's disappearance, his connection to the Mennonite church, communication with his family and information on crimes he might have committed against Mennonites as a teenager.

Griffen said the relevance of the evidence doesn't outweigh prejudice against his client.

In court documents, prosecutors argue Gooch displayed a pattern of disdain for Mennonites. While Gooch's parents were part of the church and he grew up in Wisconsin in the faith, he did not become a member.

"This dislike is evident through the acts of burglary targeting Mennonites, his surveillance of Mennonites, and his outward hostility toward Mennonites — even ones he did not know," prosecutor Ammon Barker wrote in court documents.

The defense also has questioned the reliability of cellphone tower data that prosecutors used to link Gooch to Krause. And Gooch's attorney wants the judge to weigh in on whether an expert for the prosecution can testify and whether statements Gooch made to a sheriff's detective were lawfully obtained.

Barker said the cellphone data lines up with Gooch's financial records, surveillance video and his admission that he was in northwestern New Mexico around the time of Krause's disappearance.

Gooch and Krause didn't know each other, and prosecutors aren't sure why he would have targeted her. Luke Air Force Base, where Gooch was stationed in metropolitan Phoenix, is about a seven-hour drive from Farmington, where Krause lived in a Mennonite community and taught Sunday school classes.

New Mexico High Court Avoids Mayor Campaign Funding Case – Associated Press

The New Mexico Supreme Court decided not to weigh in on the Albuquerque city clerk’s decision to deny Bernalillo County Sheriff Manuel Gonzales about $600,000 in public financing for his campaign for mayor.

The state high court on Wednesday denied Gonzales' request to order a state judge or City Clerk Ethan Watson to certify Gonzales for public campaign financing, the Albuquerque Journal reported.

Judge Bryan Biedscheid in Santa Fe last month ordered Watson to reconsider, saying Gonzales was denied due process before Watson decided July 9 that Gonzales and his campaign violated financing qualification rules.

Appeals, hearings and court filings led to the request last week for the Supreme Court to step in.

Gonzales’ campaign has admitted submitting forged paperwork to the clerk, and the city Board of Ethics & Campaign Practices fined Gonzales $500 — the maximum penalty possible — after finding he violated city code while attempting to qualify for the money.

Gonzales’ attorneys have argued the sheriff remains eligible for public financing and Watson is not an impartial decision-maker since his term as clerk is tied to incumbent Mayor Tim Keller.

Gonzales’ campaign did not immediately respond to a request from the Journal for comment. The election is Nov. 2.

Rival Congresswomen Greet Afghan Refugees At New Mexico Base – Morgan Lee, Associated Press

Some incoming Afghan refugees were greeted by two members of New Mexico’s all-female U.S. House delegation, from opposite ends of the political spectrum, at Holloman Air Force Base.

Afghans evacuated in recent days by the American military are largely being processed at U.S. government facilities across the country, including Holloman outside Alamogordo and nearby Fort Bliss in westernmost Texas, before going to resettlement agencies that will determine their final destinations.

Democratic U.S. Rep. Melanie Stansbury of Albuquerque said Wednesday she felt fortunate to meet at Holloman with an Afghan interpreter who is seeking refuge in the U.S. with a wife and two children, as well as a support group for women seeking asylum in the U.S.

“As these families transition into American life, there are different gender norms here in the U.S. That’ll be part of the journey as well,” Stansbury said of the Tuesday tour of the air base.

Republican U.S. Rep. Yvette Herrell recounted her contact with a plane load of about 150 evacuees from Afghanistan as they arrived at Holloman. She said the base is expecting to accommodate 5,000 refugees by Friday.

“They had just landed, so obviously I’m interacting with them,” said Herrell, an Alamogordo resident. “The first thing that happens ... they get refreshment, water, food and then they go to a quick medical screening."

Herrell and Stansbury were accompanied at the base on Tuesday by an Air Force general, a Homeland Security coordinator and State Department official.

Herrell expressed a combination of pride in the humanitarian effort toward resettlement — and trepidation over security vetting procedures for refugees.

“To see a humanitarian effort take shape in this capacity, it touches my heart and it truly makes me proud to be an American," she said.

She described “Herculean” efforts by contractors and military personnel to set up tents with living quarters, including private spaces to accommodate individual families, and provide medical care including COVID-19 testing.

“My biggest concern is the vetting process” for asylum-seekers, Herrell said. “And we pressed the general yesterday on these issues."

Lawyers representing refugees and special immigrant visa holders say the wait time for approval is at least two years while background checks and interviews are conducted.

Herrell says she worries Afghan refugees won't all go through that process, and that U.S. doesn't have access to enough reliable data on Afghan nationals. She opposes any artificial deadlines for security vetting.

Stansbury called those concerns political “talking points," and says she is confortable with the vetting process at multiple stages in the resettlement process.

“They’re not based on the reality of what our armed services and the State Department and the FBI and others are doing to make sure that the people that we helped to evacuate were people that were allies ... people that qualify for resettlement and services here in the U.S.," she said.

Herrell said her concerns about proper vetting do not signal disapproval of resettlement efforts.

"The refugees that are coming here seeking safety and looking for a new way of life, certainly they want to be protected also," Herrell said. “There needs to be a more robust vetting process at these facilities where they’re stopping before they come to America.”

New Mexico has a new slate of first-term representatives in Congress.

In 2018, Herrell flipped New Mexico’s southern District 2 seat to Republican control while embracing then-President Donald Trump’s border wall strategy and espousing a pro-petroleum philosophy in a major U.S. oil-production hub.

Stansbury won a special election in June on a progressive political platform to fill the former congressional seat of Interior Secretary Deb Haaland.

Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has offered New Mexico as a ready participant in efforts to assist with Afghan refugees seeking asylum.

Tribes, States Seek Review Of Native Child Adoptions Case – Associated Press

The U.S. Supreme Court has been asked to review a case that centers on whether Native Americans should receive preference in adoptions of Native children.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issued a sharply divided ruling in April over the federal Indian Child Welfare Act. The law gives Native American families priority in foster care and adoption proceedings involving Native children, and places reporting and other requirements on states.

The appeals court upheld the law and Congress’ authority to enact it.

But the judges invalidated some of the law’s placement preferences, including for Native American families and Native foster homes, saying they violate equal protection rights under the Constitution.

The court also ruled that some of the law’s provisions unconstitutionally control the duties of state officials in adoption matters.

Now, four petitions are seeking review. They ask the U.S. Supreme Court to decipher the complex ruling that had multiple partial dissents and partially concurring opinions. On some issues, a majority of the appeals court agreed. On others, the court tied, meaning the original decision from a U.S. District Court in Texas on the issues prevailed. The appeals court ruling on the issues isn't considered precedential.

The states of Texas, Louisiana, Indiana and seven individuals — three non-Native couples and the biological mother of a Native American child that was adopted by a non-Native family — want the law thrown out. The children are enrolled or potentially could be enrolled as Navajo or Cherokee, White Earth Band of Ojibwe, and Ysleta del Sur Pueblo.

The district court sided with the states and individuals who argued the Indian Child Welfare Act was unconstitutional because it was racially motivated and violates the Equal Protection Clause.

A panel of the 5th Circuit disagreed with the lower court. The majority of the court agreed to rehear the case and upheld the determination that the law is based on the political relationship between federally recognized tribes and the U.S. government, not race.

The lead defendant — the U.S. Department of the Interior — and a handful of Native American tribes are asking the Supreme Court to determine whether the plaintiffs had standing to challenge the law's placement preferences. They've long championed the law as a way to protect Native American families and their cultures and want it kept wholly intact.

The case is the most significant challenge to the Indian Child Welfare Act since it was passed in 1978. Studies have shown that before then, up to one-third of Native American children were being taken from their homes by private and state agencies, including church-run programs, and placed with mostly white families or in boarding schools in attempts to assimilate them.

Police: Officer In Anti-Abortion Ad 'Against His Wishes' – Cedar Attanasio, Associated Press

A New Mexico police officer who adopted a child from a pregnant woman he found using heroin in what has been held up as an alternative to abortion is pictured in uniform on an anti-abortion billboard without his permission, his superiors say.

Albuquerque Police Officer Ryan Holets appears on a billboard along an interstate that runs through the city, along with the words "My favorite right is life."

The images include two of him holding his daughters, including one daughter he adopted from a couple he found shooting heroin while on patrol in 2017. Holets also helped raise money to find housing for girl's biological parents while they completed a drug rehabilitation program in 2018.

The heroin-using woman was pregnant at the time Holets found her, and she agreed to give up the girl for adoption after the birth.

Anti-abortion activists have held up Holets' adoption of the girl as an alternative to abortion, including the grandmother of his other daughter, Ethel Maharg.

She is the executive director of Right to Life New Mexico, the anti-abortion group that used his image on the billboard.

The Albuquerque Police Department says Holets declined the group permission to use the image of him in uniform because it would violate policy.

“The group used the images anyway, without permission and contrary to the wishes of a police officer who has distinguished himself for his integrity,” police spokesman Gilbert Gallegos said.

“That’s not true,” Maharg told local TV station KRQE in an edited interview. “Officer Holets never told me that I couldn’t.”

It’s unclear who took the photos, which are used without attribution on a number of anti-abortion websites.

“I think they came from Ethel or from the New Mexico Right to Life," said Albuquerque Pastor Dewey Moede, who used them in a blog post last year.

Holets has participated in political rallies and even spoke at the 2020 Republican National Convention, but he did not wear a uniform or badge.

Gallegos, the police spokesmen, said he hadn't seen the images on the partisan blog posts, and he couldn't immediately say if they violated department policy.

Maharg did not return messages left with her staff Wednesday, who said she was traveling. A staff member said her comments to the television station lacked context, but declined to send a copy of the interview she said she had recorded.

Bob Odenkirk Back On 'Better Call Saul' After Heart Attack – Associated Press

Bob Odenkirk is back shooting “Better Call Saul," six weeks after having a heart attack.

Odenkirk on Wednesday tweeted a photo of himself getting made up to play title character Saul Goodman in the AMC series, indicating that shooting had resumed on its sixth and final season.

“Back to work on Better Call Saul!” Odenkirk said. “So happy to be here and living this specific life surrounded by such good people. BTW this is makeup pro Cheri Montesanto making me not ugly for shooting!”

The 58-year-old Odenkirk had what he later called a “small heart attack" and collapsed on the show's set in Albuquerque, New Mexico, on July 27.

Odenkirk has been nominated for four Emmys for playing luckless lawyer Jimmy McGill, who becomes increasingly corrupt and adopts the pseudonym Saul Goodman, the “criminal lawyer” who appeared in dozens of episodes of “Breaking Bad” before getting his own spin-off.

Both shows were shot in, and mostly set in, New Mexico.

Tags: