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Medium-Sized N.M. Districts Contest Funding System

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Nine New Mexico school districts have filed a lawsuit claiming that the state's school-funding system favors large and small districts at the expense of those in between.

The suit, filed in state district court last month by a group of medium-sized districts, is the first legal challenge to the finance system, which dates to 1974. While there have been more than 30 adjustments since then, experts said it has remained basically the same.

'There's been talk for a number of years that we really needed to look at some areas of the formula that have been perceived as unfair,' said Michael J. Davis, the state's associate superintendent for school management and accountability.

Prior to the lawsuit, both the state board of education and the legislature's education study committee asked that lawmakers pay for an independent study to see whether the formula has lived up to its intent. The last comprehensive analysis of the program was finished in 1989.

New Mexico districts rely heavily on the state's equalization system. The legislature oversees about 95 percent of districts' operating funds--or $1.2 billion. Local property-tax revenue is devoted to construction and maintenance, not classroom costs. The plaintiffs allege that by channeling money away from middle-sized districts to the state's largest and smallest districts to compensate for their higher costs, the formula violates the state constitution's call for a 'uniform" education system and 'perfect equality" among the children it serves. All nine districts suing the state fall below the average per-pupil expenditure of $3,506.

A Last Opportunity?

State officials argue that the formula was not intended to guarantee that the identical amount of money be spent on each of the 320,000 schoolchildren in the state, but to insure that students with similar needs get the same educational opportunities.

'The formula isn't based on the notion of equal dollars per child," said J. Placido Garcia Jr., the director of the legislature's education study committee. 'By definition it takes a different amount of dollars to provide equal opportunities for children in different places.

The Mosquero school district, which serves only 60 students, has New Mexico's highest per-pupil allocation, $7,146. At the bottom of the list is Hobbs, one of the plaintiffs, which serves 8,133 students with a per-pupil allocation of $2,890.

Repeated efforts in the legislature to establish a pool of money for midsized districts that fall below the state funding average have failed.

School administrators argued the lawsuit is their last option.

'We've pleaded with the legislature," said James M. Phipps, the superintendent of the 3,800-student Artesia district, which ranks 86th out of 89 districts in per-pupil spending.

'We're not real popular people right now at the state education department," he added, "but how many years of sub-funding do we have to go through before you get it fixed?

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