Schools in New Mexico face significant changes as a result of sweeping legislation that has been signed by Gov. Bill Richardson after passing the legislature with bipartisan support.
With state business leaders and education groups backing most of the provisions, the package of policy changes covers a broad array of education issues, ranging from teacher salaries to district governance.
In a signing ceremony held on April 5 at Rio Grande High School in Albuquerque, Gov. Richardson, a Democrat who took office in January, signed 18 pieces of school-related legislation that he said “represents comprehensive reform that students, teachers, and parents of New Mexico expect and deserve.”
Much of the new legislation stemmed from the work of a 64-member task force of business leaders and education representatives that the state legislature formed four years ago to study ways to improve student achievement in the state.
The broadest piece of legislation, House Bill 212, creates a new, three-tiered system for teacher salaries, and sets a minimum salary for teachers at $30,000 a year, starting in December. Now, the minimum salary for teachers in New Mexico is $22,000.
“This was a consensus bill that a broad spectrum of the community supported,” said Charles Boyer, the director of government relations for the National Education Association of New Mexico, a statewide teachers’ union.
Under the new salary schedule, starting teachers would stay in the first tier for about three years and would receive mentoring from more experienced educators.
The salary system, which was approved by a wide margin in the state’s House of Representatives and unanimously in the Senate, is slated to be fully implemented in five years. At that point, the minimum salary for teachers in the second tier is to be $40,000, and teachers in the top tier are to receive at least $50,000 a year.
Specific criteria for moving up through the system will be determined by the state department of education.
The governor also signed the state budget into law at the signing ceremony. The budget for fiscal 2004 includes a 6 percent pay raise for teachers, and a 3 percent raise for all other school employees.
Ballot Questions Approved
The laws also call for a public referendum on a constitutional amendment that would replace the current state superintendent of public instruction, an elected position, with a secretary of education appointed by the governor.
The state board of education would become an advisory commission, but would remain elected under the proposed new governance structure. Michael J. Davis, the current state superintendent, said in a statement that he does not oppose the public vote, but, he added, a change in governance does not guarantee improvements in education.
Also going before voters is a plan that would raise public schools’ share of money from a state fund that receives revenue from the use of land that is dedicated to public schools but used for other purposes.
One of the measures the governor signed means that local school board members will no longer be allowed to make decisions regarding the hiring and firing of school personnel, and instead will be required to leave such matters to district superintendents.
“This was the only section of the law we had problems with,” said Mack Mitchell, the executive director of the New Mexico School Boards Association. He added that the new law will change the “checks and balances in the system.”
Other measures the governor signed into law include bills that:
- Direct school districts to offer fine arts programs, including visual arts, music, theater, and dance, to elementary school students;
- Require school districts to allocate an additional 1 percent of their budgets to classroom instruction;
- Mandate that school districts decrease the amount of money they hold in reserve accounts;
- Call for schools to provide distance-learning opportunities to students with special needs, including necessary extra equipment or technology;
- Create the Indian Education Division within the state department of education focused on ensuring that Native American students in public schools receive an “equitable” and “culturally relevant” education; and
- Establish a Public Schools Facility Authority that will assist school districts with capital-improvement projects.