During the 2018-2019 school year, school districts around the state were awarded $65,238,725 in federal Impact-Aid (IA) funding.
The New Mexico Public Education Department kept 75 percent of that money by cutting back on the operational budget of districts that receive the aid funds, Zuni Public School District Superintendent Daniel Benavidez said.
Impact-Aid is designed to assist local school districts that lose out on property tax revenue due to the presence of tax-exempt federal property, or that have increased expenditures due to enrollment of federally-connected children, including children living on Native lands.
To right this wrong, a press conference was held at the Roundhouse on Feb. 1 to show solidarity in the fight for schools on tribal and federal lands to receive their full impact aid.
Gathering at the east entrance, school and tribal representatives from Gallup-McKinley, Central, Zuni, Albuquerque, Bernalillo, Grants, Las Cruces, Santa Fe, Jemez Valley and other areas of the state gathered to bring a voice to the issue.
Impacts at home
School Districts in Rio Arriba County are very much effected by the loss of impact aid, according to a press release distributed by Gallup-McKinley Public School District.
For example, the Dulce School District, given its place on the Jicarilla Apache Reservation, received $2,333,595 in aid. Under the Department’s current practices, they would only receive $583,398 of those funds, with the remaining $1,750,196 being taken from the Department, through deductions to the District’s operations funds.
Ironically, the deduction from the Department is almost identical to the $1.6 million in more rigorous intervention (MRI) funds that the Department, under former department secretary designate Christopher Ruszkowski, disallowed the District to use in the 2018 fall semester, according to a previous issue of the Rio Grande SUN.
Montoya did not respond to written requests for comment.
The Pojoaque Valley School District, which receives between $1 to $2 million annually, would greatly benefit from having access to all of those funds, Superintendent Melville Morgan said.
Española School District, Superintendent Bobbie Gutierrez said the same would also be true given the amount of District students whose parents are employed by the Los Alamos National Laboratory.
“If we had access to all of those funds, we would receive roughly an extra $250,000 annually,” she said.
Zuni v. State
The Yazzie/Martinez v State of New Mexico ruling has been the center of a great deal of conversation and legislative priorities during the 2019 New Mexico Legislative session.
Mainly, because the plaintiffs won the suit, with First District Judge Sarah Singleton’s ruling that the state and the Public Education Department were in violation of the state’s constitution by not providing fair and equitable education to students.
Zuni v State of New Mexico, has been an ongoing lawsuit since 2010.
In the Zuni suit, the Zuni Public School District claims that the Department has been illegally deducting anticipated aid payments.
The Department argued that, even though it is generally illegal for a state to reduce state funding to a district based on aid received by the district, they are exempt because of state’s State Equalization Guarantee Distribution (SEG) payments, or state equalization guarantee distribution, or NM statute 22-8-25.
The equalization guarantee is meant to ensure that a district’s revenue is at least equal to a district’s program cost.
The funds, under the umbrella of the statute, are taken from these districts’ operations funds, and redistributed to other districts, essentially leaving those that receive aid with the same funds they would have had if they never applied for aid.
“All of the Districts apply for impact aid individually,” Benavidez said. “The application takes three-and-a-half months and the money comes directly to the district, then the state says, ‘Okay, we are going to reduce your operational budget by that amount.’”
Officials from districts and tribal entities most affected view this statute as legalized theft that further harms already-impoverished areas, effectively stiffing student growth, Sen. George Munoz, D-Cibola, McKinley and San Juan counties, said.
“Every day a race is started in New Mexico, and every student should start out in the same line,” he said. “While our students run this race, they are behind every-time, and never catch up. With impact-aid, they would be in same race, at the same starting line, with the resources to accomplish what every student in the state should be able to accomplish.”
These districts argue they aren’t trying to be unfair, or hurt other Districts, they just seek the right to use the full funds awarded to them by the federal government. Otherwise, if the Department continues to take these funds, they ask that it be equal on all fronts.
For example, Los Alamos School District receives $8 million in PiLT (Payments in Lieu of Taxes) funding annually, which the Department does not deduct from their operations funding, according to the press release.
“If we (Zuni Public School District) got our full amount, we would be at around $9 million,” Benavidez said. “The idea isn’t to hurt people, but to make sure that we all get the funds that go to us.”
Enjoy reading the SUN online? Then you'll love the print version. This is just one of the 26 local news, opinion, arts and sports stories published in the Feb. 7, 2019 edition. To see the rest, buy a copy from one of our vendors on the street or at one of these locations.