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Rural New Mexico School Districts Hard to Count

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Any census tract with less than a 73 percent return rate of mailed census surveys is considered a hard-to-count tract. The majority of Rio Arriba County falls into this category, with rates of return ranging from about 70 percent to less than 60 percent, not including residents counted in person.

Nationwide, local governments, activists and other community members are trying to convince people to participate in the U.S. Census, in hopes of avoiding a historic undercount that could cost local communities millions of dollars in federal funding.

In New Mexico, one of the hardest to count states in the nation, the challenge of getting an accurate count is especially pronounced, especially in more rural areas, in indigenous communities and in schools.

New Mexico Voices for Children Deputy Director Amber Wallin said school districts face an especially tough challenge, since children are one of the hardest to count populations. She said this can be attributed to their living situation, such as living with grandparents.

“We know that New Mexico, and especially Rio Arriba County, has a large population raised by their grandparents,” she said. “That can pose additional challenges.”

The Census, which begins April 1, in large part determines that amount of Title I funding allocated to each state, which is then distributed to the various school districts.

“The Census is about power and money,” Census Bureau Partnership Coordinator Sergio Martinez said. “Funding for our schools is the most valuable investment we make in our lifetime.”

Due to this, many rural districts are telling people in their communities and in some cases providing the resources to make that possible.

“When they see documents like that, there’s always going to be a little hesitation to complete them and send them back in, because they don’t know what it’s about,” Mesa Vista School District Superintendent Albert Martinez said.

Martinez said his district is making information about the Census available in every classroom and office.

Other districts, like Chama Valley, are opening their facilities so local residents can fill out their Census.

An undercount, even as little as 1 percent, can mean millions of dollars not allocated for different programs, including those used by families and local school districts.

Estimates show that every person not counted would cost New Mexico around $30,000 over the next 10 years. In Rio Arriba County alone, a 1 percent undercount would mean a loss of over $11 million for the next decade.

This will be the first Census primarily available online, a strategy to increase participation. However, 45 percent of residents in the County have no access to internet at home, according to analysis of Census data by City University of New York.

New Mexico State Demographer told KUNM Thursday (2/6) that people can respond to the Census online, by phone or by paper.

Chama Valley Superintendent Anthony Casados said residents will be able to use their facilities to fill out the questionnaire online if they choose.

Chama Valley covers a vast but sparsely populated part of the state. Casados said there are few avenues to inform the public about the Census and how it can impact school funding.

“We used to have a radio station, and I think being able to communicate through the radio station was extremely helpful,” he said. “We no longer have that.”

Many residents rural parts of the County and state rely on post office boxes for their mail, but the Census Bureau will not use them to send out the questionnaires.

In communities reliant on P.O. boxes, packets will be hand-delivered to each home, which can be difficult in rural areas, where homes can be miles apart and have addresses that are difficult to navigate.

The City University of New York analysis states that a majority of residents in Rio Arriba will have packets hand-delivered for them to mail back.

Wallin said that because these rural areas can be tough to navigate, it is important to have local residents going door-to-door to talk to community members.

New Mexico’s pueblos and other tribal lands can be even harder to navigate. In the Jicarilla Apache Nation, for example, 99 percent of residents will have a packet delivered to their door.

The federal government provides Impact Aid to schools on federal lands. Dulce School District interim superintendent James Cammon said Census figures greatly impact how much Impact Aid funding the District receives.

“It’s vital,” he said. “It’s absolutely critical.”

Cammon said the District has not started any formal efforts to increase participation.

Charlotte Little, pueblo coordinator for New Mexico Native Census Coalition, said the distrust many indigenous people feel toward the federal government can greatly affect how many of them respond.

“When you have someone that’s not from that community, that’s how you start missing these other pockets of people,” she said.

In response, the Coalition is organizing all federally-recognized tribes to have local tribal members talk to people about the importance of the Census. Censuses will also have translators for several indigenous languages, including Tewa and Jicarilla Apache.

Shona Holyfield, public relations assistant for the Nation, said approximately 10 percent of members speak primarily Jicarilla. She also said the nature of Census taking can conflict with the culture of those living in the Nation.

“Our people are real private, so they think, ‘If I give them this information and they use it for the housing program, and I’m going to be without a home,’” she said. ‘They’re really reluctant to be open with a lot of information.”

All these outreach efforts are being made as the Census faces its lowest amounts of funding in years. Activists argue these cuts, with a larger population to count, increase the likelihood of an undercount.

“Not only are we trying to do more grassroots efforts, we’re doing it with a lot less funding,” said Ahtza Chavez, executive director of the Native American Voting Alliance.

Recently, the state Legislature has considered making up the difference in Census funding. Senate Bill 4 would set aside $8 million in new funding for the Census received unanimous support in the Senate and now heads to the House of Representatives.

Meanwhile, state officials are making efforts to meet the mandate set forth in the Yazzie/Martinez ruling, which states a substantial increase in educational funding is necessary to improve the quality of education for New Mexico’s most vulnerable populations.

Casados said he hopes information about the Census will reach the more rural parts of his district.

“We’re doing everything we can do from our part,” he said. "I’m hoping the people do take this seriously and they do realize the impact it has on this state and eventually the impact it has on public schools.”

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