Gov. Martinez signs education bills

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By Susan Montoya Bryan
The Associated Press

ALBUQUERQUE — Gov. Susana Martinez on Wednesday signed into law legislation aimed at increasing transparency among New Mexico’s public school districts and strengthening oversight of charter schools.

Among the four bills signed by the governor during a ceremony at Albuquerque’s Sandia High School was a measure that requires financial information about school districts and charter schools to be posted on a government website known as the “sunshine portal.”

“Open government breeds greater fiscal discipline, greater constituent engagement and the opportunity to continue our public discourse about the best way to spend the hard-earned monies of our overburdened taxpayers,” the governor said, standing before a class of government students.

Under the new law, schools will have to provide data to the Public Education Department for online publication, including a yearly operating budget, monthly spending as well as a directory of school employees by name, title and salary.

Since public education accounts for more than 40 percent of New Mexico’s yearly spending, supporters have argued that the public should be able to easily access information showing how schools spend taxpayer money.

Martinez said she’s hopeful the increased transparency will encourage education officials and other state leaders to ensure that spending in the classroom is a priority over bureaucracy.

“Using education dollars more efficiently holds enormous potential for boosting student achievement without increasing spending,” she said.

The reporting requirement will take effect in July 2012.

Another bill signed by Martinez provides for more oversight of charter schools by the state or local school boards. It requires a contract to be developed that includes guidelines for evaluating the academic performance of the charter school.

Yearly visits to charter schools must also be done to assess whether the schools are meeting their educational and governance goals. Academic performance, post-secondary readiness and graduation rates are among the indicators that will be monitored.

The new law was developed in response to a critical audit by the Legislative Finance Committee, which recommended a freeze on the establishment of new charter schools until oversight was improved.

The other bills signed Wednesday require:
— Charter schools to submit annual reports to the Public Education Department on their plans and actual use of capital improvement money, including from local property tax levies. Supporters said the new law will improve oversight to ensure capital improvement financing is properly used.

— School districts and charter schools to prepare quarterly financial reports for their governing board members. The law establishes a statewide standard for what must be in the reports, including a listing of warrants or checks, credit card purchases, cash balances and debts as well as actual expenses compared with what was budgeted.

Wednesday marked the second consecutive day Martinez signed bills related to reforming New Mexico’s education system.

Like the previous day during a stop at an Edgewood elementary school, Martinez noted that New Mexico ranks near the bottom when it comes to national student achievement. However, she said the state ranks 26th when it comes to spending per student.

“This confirms that we can and must use our resources wisely to yield a better return on our investment in our schools and students,” she said.