Ledes from the Land of Enchantment

We’re in the dark on most school board race finances, that may change next year.  

Even as some candidates in the largest school district races raise tens of thousands of dollars, for most of New Mexico’s school board races, there’s no requirement to disclose campaign spending or donors.

Only candidates running for school board seats in districts with 12,000 students or more are required to file any campaign finance reports.

New Mexico has 89 school districts, only the six largest publicly disclose where school board candidates are getting money and where it’s being spent.

Gallup-McKinley School District has a student population of 12,347, and candidates also filed reports, even as it’s not listed on the Secretary of State’s website as being required to.

Only five districts meet the criteria, according to the New Mexico Secretary of State’s office. Those district races are for Albuquerque Public Schools District, Las Cruces Public Schools, Rio Rancho Public Schools, Gadsden Independent School District and Santa Fe Public Schools.  

But Santa Fe is on the edge. The 2023 enrollment numbers from the New Mexico Public Education Department show that enrollment is 11,826.

State law requires candidates to file reports 21 days before the election and 30 days after the election. This means that spending in the weeks leading up to the election isn’t public until after the elections.

The student population at Farmington Municipal Schools is 11,200, just below the cutoff where candidates are required to report.

Lisa Maxwell, a challenger to the Farmington District 5 seat describing her platform as acting and considering action through “conservative values,” on her website, said she’d support reporting donations and expenditures.

Maxwell, a licensed CPA, said she chose not to accept donations.

“I didn’t feel right taking donations for school board politics,” she told Source NM in an interview. “Heavy-duty politics shouldn’t be in the school systems.”

Roundhouse solution

A proposal to change campaign finance reporting laws in local school board races stalled in the 2023 legislative session. Rep. Natalie Figueroa introduced House Bill 325 that would require campaign finance filings from all school board races when receiving or spending more than $500.

“It’s just something we have to address,” Figueroa said. “People need to know where candidates are getting their money in the other 84 races.”

The law would have also required school board members to step down when running for other offices, tighten legal penalties for nepotism, require more hours of training and require all districts to webcast their meetings. 

The bill was tabled in the House Education Committee at the tail end of the session.

Figueroa told Source NM that bringing the bill back in 2024 would depend on Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s call, but said to expect it in future sessions. 

Think New Mexico, a nonpartisan think tank which helped write the bill, produced the 2022 report and said the improvements on school board governance would be part of bettering outcomes for New Mexico schools.

Executive Director Fred Nathan said he’s concerned about national groups pouring money into these local elections on issues such as book banning or other controversial issues. 

“These are nonpartisan elections, and the public might be influenced if they knew who’s supporting or opposing a candidate and school board,” he said. “Nationally, school board positions have become much more contentious lately.”

The New Mexico School Boards Association President Joe Guillen opposed the bill in this past session. Guillen told Source NM that he would still oppose the bill if campaign finance was required of all school board races. 

He said filing reports of no activity, even if below the $500 spending limit, would be burdensome on smaller school districts, and may discourage participation.

When asked about districts that are close to the 12,000 student limit, Guillen said there may be some negotiation in making larger districts report campaign expenditures and donations.

“I see the possibility of reaching down and picking up a few more of the districts if they have in fact shown there are political contributions,” he said. “But making that across the board for all the districts would not be helpful.”

What did candidates have to say?

At least one candidate in a small race said he hoped for more transparency. 

Kevin Reid Scott, running for the District 5 seat in the 2,331-student district of Moriarty-Edgewood, said he rejected all donations and was self-financed in the race.

He faces other challengers Lyndsi Donner and incumbent Windie Burns.

“People deserve to know who is spending money, candidates and donors,” he told Source NM.

Most candidates running in big and small races said more transparency over school board races would be a positive for voters.

In Las Cruces races, challengers and incumbents said they support transparency in campaign finance reporting.

Patrick Nolan is a first-time candidate, running for the District 1 seat, which he was appointed to earlier this year.

Nolan has raised $3,335 in contributions, trailing behind opponent Joseph Sousa, who carried over a $5,200 balance from running for the seat in 2021 and sits in the seat after appointment in April.

Many of Nolan’s donations are from prominent local Democratic officeholders, including committees to elect Sen. Carrie Hamblen, Rep. Angelica Rubio and Las Cruces City Councilor Johana Bencomo.

Sousa’s top donors include Kimberly Skaggs, an executive director for the Republican Party of New Mexico, who ran for state Senate in 2020.

Nolan told Source NM that using donation platforms like ActBlue – a political action committee to fundraise for left-leaning and Democratic politicians – was “a seamless way to raise money.”

“The reality is that we have to raise money in an efficient, easy way to win races these days,” he said.

Nolan said an important part of the race is transparency.   

“Letting folks know who is supporting your campaign is equally as important as what you are campaigning on,” Nolan said. “The more sunlight and clarity there is for who’s supporting you, the more valuable for the voters.”

One Las Cruces Board of Education incumbent, Carol Cooper, described difficulties filing with the Secretary of State’s office, saying that “reporting has been a nuisance” for a donation of $20.

“I’m older, and I’ve had some difficulties recently with memory, but I cannot tolerate the level of frustration, I don’t have the capacity for things taking a long time or being incomprehensible,” she said.   

Cooper said she had to call the Secretary of State’s office to have someone walk her through the reporting process again.

According to the latest filing, Cooper paid a $200 fine for failing to file her latest report due Oct. 17. She’s had $600 in fines waived.

 New Mexico’s secretary of state held four trainings on campaign finance filing in October and has another two in November, according to the office website.

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