Ledes from the Land of Enchantment

Experienced teachers could see smaller pay increases in New Mexico | Education

New Mexico’s historic investments in educator pay are set to raise the average statewide teacher salary to $64,006, pushing it to the top among US Southwestern states, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s office has said.

The governor and lawmakers put a high priority on two key measures in this year’s regular legislative session, one that increases the annual base pay in each of the state’s three teacher licensing tiers by $10,000 and another that calls for 7 percent average raises for education workers. A third measure requires public schools to pay all workers a minimum of $15 per hour.

More highly paid principals also are in line for increases and could see raises of up to 20 percent.

As the budget deadline approaches, however, some administrators and educators at Santa Fe Public Schools worry the district won’t have the funds to offer equal increases for all teachers, who have varying years of experience. While the state has allocated funding to boost payroll, the move comes amid rising operations costs and the possible loss for the local district of a couple of million dollars in per-student funding from the state, due to the loss of hundreds of students from its classrooms.

Superintendent Hilario “Larry” Chavez said the district will need to take a deep look at its finances amid declining enrollment as it strives to make competitive pay a reality.

“The key word is ‘average,’ ” Chavez said of the upcoming raises. “We spotted this early on that not all raises will be uniform.”

He added: “It really does appear that those individuals with more experience could possibly receive a smaller percentage raise because they’re already at the top of the pay table. That’s where you start to really see the wide range of potential raises.”

Another possible result of decreased revenues as costs rise: elimination of district contracts or vacant positions. Chavez said the district now has more than 100 unfilled jobs, including 60 teacher positions.

Public districts and charter schools across the state are awaiting the New Mexico Public Education Department’s release of details on its enrollment-based school funding, which will largely determine their budgets for the next fiscal year.

The so-called unit value — used to calculate how much a district will receive for each student, is expected in early April, leaving little time for administrators to draft budgets before a May 1 deadline.

“Until the unit value is released to us, we don’t have an exact number of what our funding would look like for next school year,” Chavez said. “But we do have some inclination … our beginning funding would be smaller than it is this year.”

Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, enrollment at the district has fallen sharply.

Santa Fe Public Schools counted 11,176 students in its classrooms in fall, compared to 12,033 in the previous school year and more than 12,500 in fall 2019. This year’s numbers have since edged up to 11,269, according to the district.

The state uses an average of a district’s 80-day and 120-counts to determine how much funding it will receive for the following school year. Santa Fe Public Schools’ 120-day number has not yet been released.

Chief Financial Officer Robert Martinez hopes the state’s unit value, which was $4,863 this school year, will come in higher for 2022-23 to help ease some of the pain. Students are designated a number of units based on their grade level, whether they receive special education services and other factors.

Even as the district begins to make revenue projections and map out a budget, Martinez said there is still too much uncertainty to speak about teacher salary schedules. Along with the unit value, he said, the outcome of April negotiations with the local teachers union and educators’ participation in programs that extend the school calendar will affect paychecks.

Chavez said the district is still deciding whether to participate in K-5 Plus in 2022-23, a summer program for kids in kindergarten through fifth grade that aims to boost learning and narrow achievement gaps, especially among students from lower-income households.

According to the Public Education Department, the district has spent nearly $23 million on teacher salaries this school year.

The agency said pay increases for school employees will kick in as soon as April. Districts and charter schools will implement a 3 percent wage increase on the last quarter of staff contracts.

Another raise will kick in again at the start of the next school year, along with a 4 percent average raise to get all employees up to the required $15 minimum and bring teachers and principals up to their new minimum salary levels, based on the three-tier licensing system. Those base salary levels are set to kick in at $50,000, $60,000 and $70,000 for teachers, depending on their license level.

Teachers in Santa Fe Public Schools already earn a slightly higher base pay than the state’s current minimums.

First-tier teachers start at $43,253, while second-tier teachers earn at least $54,086 and third-tier teachers, $64,933. Martinez said it’s difficult to calculate the current average teacher salary, in part because the district’s pay tables have so many increments beyond the minimum pay.

He estimates under new the raises, the average pay will slightly surpass the state’s estimated average, reaching around $65,000 or $70,000.

“As we move into the next fiscal year, that means every teacher is going to move up on the salary schedule,” he said.

The same goes for principals.

District minimums for principals this year are $75,600 in elementary school, $88,200 in middle school and $97,440 in high school, and will need to jump to $84,000, $98,000 and $112,000, respectively.

There are nearly 30 principals in the district’s schools, and most of them preside over elementary schools. Some principals — along with teachers and assistant principals — could see raises of up to 20 percent to meet the new minimum requirements, Martinez said.

Chavez expects the raises to help recruit and retain teachers and other educational staff, especially those on the lower end of the salary schedule, with less experience, who likely will see larger raises.

But he and Grace Mayer, president of the National Education Association of Santa Fe, said the district’s teacher workforce tends to be older and more experienced, and lower pay raises for those in the higher tiers could spur retirements.

Lujan Grisham signed a bill into law that allows teachers to return to work just three months after retiring, which is intended to help keep classroom spots filled. But teachers retiring at the end of this school year wouldn’t be able to return until October.

“The kids are going to be back for August and September, for two whole months,” Mayer said. “If people decide to retire — which I know they are — and come back, that’s great for us but not so great for our kids.”

Mayer said when the bargaining process begins in April, she expects the union to advocate for more increases for higher-level teachers.

“It’s the folks that are 20 years or more that aren’t going to see much,” she said.

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