Lawmakers and state education officials met with representatives of northern New Mexico school districts for several days last week. The interim meeting of the Legislative Education Study Committee was held in Dulce, near Chama, up by the New Mexico-Colorado state line.
KUNM’s Hannah Colton was there for the three-day session, which focused primarily on education for Native American students. She spoke with KUNM’s Elaine Baumgartel.
COLTON: There were three of the Public Education Department’s five deputy secretaries, so you had this big contingent of state officials. There were experts in Native American education from UNM and elsewhere. You had tribal leaders from the Jicarilla Apache Nation, which is headquartered there in Dulce, and also leaders from the Navajo Nation, and from Zuni, Gallup-McKinley County and Central Consolidated school districts, which are in the Four Corners area. And then you also had representatives from these four northern districts, Chama, Dulce, Jemez Mountains and Cuba. The chair of the committee, Rep. Christine Trujillo, was saying it had been a decade since the LESC had met directly with those northern school districts.
KUNM: One of the central topics of discussion was funding. New Mexico has a funding formula for public education, so districts aren’t reliant on property taxes for operations the way they are in many other states in the U.S. But districts can levy taxes for things like classrooms, gymnasiums and other school facilities. How does that play out in some of these districts where there are either a lot of tribal lands or the districts are really rural so the tax base can’t support these kinds of significant capital improvements?
COLTON: So the federal government has created a program specifically to remedy this situation where districts can’t raise a lot of tax revenue, or can’t raise any tax revenue. It’s call the Impact Aid program and it’s meant to replace those property taxes. All of these districts apply for those federal dollars. They’re meant to pay for building maintenance and facilities. But New Mexico, because it has this equalized formula, claims three quarters of those funds. They pull them back, they take credit for the Impact Aid, and they put them into the state equalization formula and they distribute them out as operational funding. Districts have sued over this. There’s ongoing litigation known as the Zuni lawsuit. So the LESC heard updates from those districts who say they’re dealing with sub-par school facilities, the cost of rural construction is much higher, they’re having to dip into operational dollars for capital sometimes. And for many years they’ve been trying to get the state to stop this practice or to change the formula somehow. It’s an ongoing conflict over what an 'equalized' funding formula would really look like.
KUNM: Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham and lawmakers in Santa Fe put a bunch more money into education this year, partially in response to a judge’s ruling [in the Yazzie-Martinez case] that the state has been violating the constitutional rights of at-risk students by failing to provide sufficient education. For the tribal leaders who were speaking at this interim committee meeting, the local school officials who were being able to address lawmakers and state officials, what were we hearing from them? Are they seeing enough from the state?
COLTON: There was a sense of hope, that with this new governor and with some of the bills that were passed that there is movement on a lot of issues that there’s been zero movement on in recent years. But one of the last presentations we heard was from Regis Pecos, who’s a long-time tribal leader of Cochiti Pueblo, a leader at Santa Fe Indian School, he’s now a lead policy analyst for the House Democrats. He brought the conversation back around to a real historical context and he was reminding lawmakers of the long history of why Native American schools are so under-resourced in this state: colonialism, boarding schools, U.S. policies of assimilation that were actively meant to stamp out Native American languages and cultures. He was trying to put it into perspective to say that in 2019, now is the first time they’re seeing in a very long time that tribes have had a true opportunity to define education driven by fulfilling their own needs. And there was a range of reactions from lawmakers to that idea. Some are very receptive and agree that districts like Zuni, Gallup, Dulce have never gotten enough funding. And from other lawmakers there’s more of this defensive attitude, an attitude of ‘we just gave you more money, we’re doing everything we can, it’s going to take time,’ and so you have a real conflict between a historical inadequacy and a sense that ‘we’re doing plenty, be happy with it.’
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