April 2011 Column

Ever wonder why Hobbs is perennially in last place among statewide school districts when it comes to funding? 

Let me try a simple explanation of a complex topic. The New Mexico Legislature approved a State Equalization Formula in 1974. The intent was to reduce inequities between parts of the state which generate large amounts of revenue and those that don’t. School districts which were rich in funding thanks to a strong economy would be forced to share their wealth with poorer school districts. The new law meant that Hobbs could no longer use its oil and gas tax revenues to build major projects like Watson Stadium and instead would divvy up its hard-earned oil income with other districts so that all of New Mexico’s children could be educated on an equal basis. There’s nothing wrong with that.
            
Years passed, educational trends and accounting methods evolved and the State Equalization Formula was repeatedly tweaked by the Legislature and Public Education Department. The result today is a complex formula which gives districts added money for, among other things, the number of at-risk, special education and bilingual students on their rolls. Clearly it is more expensive to teach those students.        The formula also rewards schools that are able to retain their experienced teachers – no simple task in a sometimes transient city such as Hobbs. The education level of each teacher is also given weight – which is why HMS nearly 10 years ago began requiring its teachers to attain a master’s degree within a six-year period of being hired. Finally, legislators said it only makes sense that it costs more to educate students in small rural schools. After all, a high school chemistry class in a small district with a handful of students still requires the same equipment and resources as that same class in a larger district.            
            
But 40 years down the road the State Equalization regulation has come full circle. And the result is an unequal one for Hobbs students.

Here’s why I say that. 

All school districts receive the same unit value per student. Currently, that number is $3,585.97– 8 percent less than what it was in 2008. (During that same period of time, HMS enrollment has increased by 500 students, certified staff has decreased by 50 and hard costs such as insurance and energy have increased).
             
Districts compute a final budget based on the number of students they have, the state’s unit value and the equalization quotient. From those numbers, we can derive a cost-per-pupil reimbursement figure.  As an example, Hobbs received $5,959 per student this year. Compare that number to $6,520 for Roswell’s student value, $6,315 for Clovis, $6,841 for Albuquerque and $7,158 for Lovington. If we replaced the Hobbs reimbursement with quotients from towns I believe have similar demographics to Hobbs, it would translate to the following increase in local school dollars: Clovis $3 million; Lovington $10 million; Roswell $4.7 million; and Albuquerque $7.4 million.

Don’t take my word for it. Two years ago the Legislative Education Study Council sponsored a study on the funding formula.  The results demonstrated that HMS is “under funded” by 26 percent or $12 million. Why are the children of Hobbs deemed less worthy than children in other towns?
            
It seems that the topic of inequitable funding comes up every year in Hobbs. But this year’s funding dilemma has cut our district deeply. We had to postpone the opening of Heizer because we simply didn’t have the money to operate a third middle school. It’s ironic that we were forced to this extreme at a time when our oil and gas revenues are propping up the state economy.              

When we approached voters and asked them to pass a bond issue in 2008, we told them that we needed expanded facilities because of community growth. Now – although we have built a new Freshman High School – our students will not reap the benefits of an additional campus to relieve overcrowding.
            
Honestly, some budget corrections can be good for a system.  It makes organizations prioritize expenditures. At some point, however, the reductions become harmful to the educational process. HMS has reached that point.

           
Our school district is a microcosm of the community.  As our schools perform, so does the community.  Overcrowded schools will be a deterrent for future companies to relocate to southeastern New Mexico. Our community generates millions of dollars of revenue for the state, yet we are LAST in cost per pupil funding.

I am not endorsing an increase in taxes; I just want the taxes, which are already in place to be distributed fairly. We will accept the hand that is dealt to us for the coming school year.  But it’s time to take steps toward making a change. This is why the funding formula discrepancy is a community issue. We need your support in attempting to get our fair share. I will coordinate community meetings soon to discuss the options available for our schools and community. Please join the effort to return us to what the state tried to do in 1974 - create a State EQUALIZATION formula.

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