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January 2010: APS pushes on despite budget woes

This guest column appeared in the Albuquerque Journal.

Within a matter of days, the New Mexico Legislature will reconvene for what promises to be one of the more difficult sessions in recent history.The estimated amount of the budget shortfall is unknown, but predictions are daunting. The ramifications of deeper cuts within public education have left us all holding our breath.

I'm often asked how Albuquerque Public Schools will survive yet another round of cuts. Will there be mandatory furloughs, layoffs, school closures, fewer school days, salary reductions?

It's fair to say we've considered all of these options, and more. The Legislative Finance Committee recently recommended a 2 percent salary cut for all state workers and public schools employees. We oppose this recommendation, standing by our conviction that the Legislature should let local school districts and boards decide how to cut their budgets.

I'm not supportive of furloughs or layoffs. I haven't seen great cost savings to districts that have shortened the school day, week or year. And there are a lot of issues we'd have to consider before proposing school closures.

During the first year and half of my tenure as superintendent, we did manage to cut $14.5 million from the district's budget without negatively affecting the classroom.

Last fall, the state Legislature informed us that we would have to cut another 2 percent of our budget — about $11.6 million — to cover a statewide revenue shortfall. Once again, we managed to find ways to cut back without directly affecting students or employees.

We were fortunate this year to have federal stimulus dollars available to help fill some funding gaps. It's disheartening to realize that while those dollars served an important purpose, the money wasn't used as originally intended. And it's scary to think what's going to happen when the federal dollars are no longer available.

Stimulus funds were supposed to help us with reform — reform such as that at Rio Grande High and Ernie Pyle Middle schools. Even without federal assistance, we were able to redesign the two schools, both of which are now seeing increases in daily attendance, decreases in vandalism, more parental involvement and early indicators of improved academic performance.

Stimulus funds also could have helped us cover the cost of extending the school day to at least 5 p.m. at all 13 APS comprehensive high schools. Instead, we shifted some funds around so that all of our high schools can now offer after-school credit recovery classes that better accommodate the needs of students to ensure they graduate with their peers.

We found funding last year to add AVID, a program designed to help students in the academic middle prepare for college, at two of our high schools and three of our middle schools. But it's not clear how we will be able to pay for expansion of the program to two more high schools and their feeder mid-schools next year.

Public education is a business that requires adequate funding. Most of that funding — about 85 percent of our operation budget — is tied up in salaries and benefits. There's only so much cutting, shifting and maneuvering we can do.

Despite all the uncertainties and bleak projections, those of us in public education remain hopeful. We are hopeful because we know that our teachers, students and parents have goals that aren't attached to a price tag. We will continue to work hard, thrive to inspire and expect great things, even in the midst of a budget crisis.

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