School officials say: Don't cut funding

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By Don Pace

Area school superintendents are pleading with local lawmakers to hold their districts harmless when they strike the budget ax.

But a state senator painted a grim picture, saying the budget shortfall may be even greater than previously estimated.

Gov. Bill Richardson said he will call the Legislature into special session starting next Saturday to deal with the budget shortfall caused by the national recession.

During a public meeting last week to discuss the state government’s budget crisis, area legislators got an earful — and then some.

The meeting was attended by educators from northern New Mexico who said even modest budget cuts could have a negative effect on children.

Sen. Pete Campos, D-Las Vegas, and Reps. Richard Vigil, D- Ribera, and Thomas Garcia, D-Ocate, said the state is facing an estimated revenue shortfall of $500 million for the current fiscal year. But Campos said the number may rise to $700 million.

Gov. Bill Richardson and House Speaker Ben Lujan have said they don’t want budget cuts to affect education.

Campos has a different take.

“Because of additional information, we are starting to see we may not be able to hold everyone harmless. We may not be able to go forward without coming up with anywhere from a 3.3 to possibly a 10 percent cut across the board,” Campos said.

West Las Vegas Superintendent Jim Abreu said his colleagues around the state are saying that if there is a cut that is even close to 10 percent, it would be devastating to schools.

“Right now we are bare bones... There is not much more that we can give. I know people are looking at us because we are about 40 percent of the budget, but education used to be over 50 percent of the budget. We have a lot less money than we used to have, and if we have any more cuts it will affect the way we educate our children,” Abreu said.

Superintendents from Clayton, Cimarron, Springer, Roy and Raton reflected Abreu’s comments.

Dave Gallegos, superintendent of Cimarron, said cuts in education would have a great impact on children in rural communities.

“In my district, these budget cuts will devastate elementary art, physical education, band and athletics, which has already been devastated. All these programs will be no more,” Gallegos said.

Regarding athletics, Gallegos said schools in larger cities only have to cross town to compete, but rural schools have the added expense of travel, lodging and meals. He said right now parents in the district are working to raise $25,000 for travel expenses because, otherwise, students could not participate in sports.

“Do children in rural areas deserve anything less than the kids in Las Cruces or Albuquerque? A 3.5 percent cut will devastate our school,” Gallegos said.

Campos asked, “So you are saying a 3.5 percent cut would definitely be devastating to the Cimarron district?”

“Yes it would devastate the district,” Gallegos said.

Mora Superintendent Dora Romero agreed, saying even 3 percent would be a bad idea.

Abreu said 15 to 25 teachers could lose their jobs if the state cut his budget by even 3 percent.

“We would also lose physical education, probably art, music, technology, athletics, our libraries, after-school programs and our pre-kindergarten would suffer. So I have nine areas that would be affected by a 3 percent cut,” Abreu said. “A 3 percent cut scares me to death; a 10 percent cut horrifies me.”

Gallegos agreed, “We are looking at a train wreck.”

Campos said the governor is looking at a 4.5 percent across-the-board reduction in other parts of the government. He said he was expecting more people to come to the table.        

“What concerns me is we don’t have other representatives from other forms of government, but I really applaud the fact that people from education have shown up. I wish others would have been here also,” Campos said.