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N.M. Lawmakers Adopt Tax To Fund Pay Raise

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The New Mexico legislature last week ended a four-day special session after approving $50 million in new taxes to fund a 5 percent pay increase for public-school employees.

Lawmakers also adopted several key provisions of Gov. Garrey Carruthers's education-reform plan, including reductions in kindergarten-class size and a pilot program for lengthening the school year.

The pay increase, which will be set by local school boards and is likely to vary by district, appears to have cooled talk of a possible teachers' strike, even though unions had called for an increase of at least 7.1 percent.

"We are calling the results of the session a major accomplishment and a significant victory," said John Ingram, communications director for the New Mexico Federation of Teachers, which represents about 6,000 school employees.

But the National Education Association-New Mexico, with roughly 7,400 members, sent out 30,000 ballots last week asking all teachers whether they are satisfied with the results of the special session and whether they would consider a strike.

"We are not satisfied," said Steve Lemken, communications director for the nea-nm "We are satisfied we got from zero to 5 percent, since we came out of the regular session with zero. But 5 percent--that4doesn't buy it."

The New Mexico Federation of Teachers, meanwhile, is calling on teachers to throw away the nea-nm ballot, Mr. Ingram said.

The special session began March 16, about a month after the regular session adjourned without acting on pay increases for school employees.

After four long days punctuated by demonstrations by teachers, legislators passed a quarter-cent increase in the gross-receipts tax, which is expected to raise about $45.7 million in the first year. They also approved a quarter-cent increase in the automobile excise tax, which is expected to raise $4.2 million.

But Governor Carruthers's proposals to increase the cigarette tax and give local school boards the authority to seek increases in their property-tax mill levy did not pass.

Hitting the Limit?

After originally calling for a 10 percent pay increase, teachers-union officials then sought the 7.1 percent increase. That level was also recommended by the state board of education, as part of a plan to increase the state's average teacher salary to the national average within five years. According to the nea-nm, the average New Mexico teacher's salary is $25,120, compared with the national average of $31,300.

In Albuquerque, school-board members have promised teachers a87.1 percent increase, vowing to make up with local funds the amount not provided by the legislature.

In other districts, however, raises may be less than 5 percent.

At a news conference following the special session, Governor Carruthers said he was pleased with its results, but added that he was concerned about the continuing strike talk among teachers.

"I really did the best I could," he said. "There's a limit to how much we can ask at this time from our people. We've about hit that limit."

Teachers "ought to smile, sayel10l'thank you,' and get on with business," he argued.

21st-Century Plan

In their special session, lawmakers also approved the "21st-century education act" proposed by Mr. Carruthers. The package included funding for the following reform efforts:

$2 million for districts or schools that lengthen the school year from 180 days to 200 days;

$2 million for districts that expand their teacher contracts from 182 days to 190 days to allow more time for teacher training and teach8er-parent conferences;

$481,000 for districts that develop after-school alternatives for latchkey children; and

$175,000 in transportation subsidies for low-income students who want to enroll in schools outside their neighborhood.

Other provisions adopted include a 20-student cap on kindergarten classes, with limits in other grades scheduled for later years, and increased aid for bilingual education. In addition, a new program will aid minority doctoral candidates who agree to teach in New Mexico.

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