By Dennis Roch, Guest columnist
As the state Legislature deliberates over New Mexico’s budget shortfall, I have frequently heard the statement, “Every program must take its share of cuts.”
This statement assumes every program is of equal value, and has an equal return for our future benefit, an idea which is far from the truth.
On the contrary, public education is a constitutional requirement and an essential government service. It deserves to be fully funded before we even think about spending our hard earned tax dollars on non-essential services.
Our schools have already suffered cuts of more $200 million in general fund dollars over the last two years, a decrease of more than 10 percent.
Because such a large portion of school funding is in personnel, cuts of this magnitude compel schools to eliminate positions, resulting in larger class sizes and causing student performance to suffer. As someone who has taught both high school and middle school and now serves as a district-level administrator, I have seen firsthand how teacher funding affects education.
Colleagues of mine who were excellent teachers have sought other professions that compensated them more fairly for their education, skills, and experience.
I have seen students who were once energetic and passionate about their studies become disenchanted or frustrated because they were not getting what they needed in order to succeed.
So where did the $200 million that was cut from education go? Shockingly, it was diverted to such non-essential programs as the Spaceport. As of last year, the state had spent $198 million on this project, one for which I don’t see any requirement in the state constitution. I called on my colleagues to suspend expenditures on the Spaceport, both in this session and in last fall’s special session. Both times, my efforts were thwarted in committee.
So while school funding is threatened, the state pays for a third chef at the governor’s mansion, a Rail Runner that loses $34 million a year, a jet for Gov. Richardson and Lt. Gov. Denish, and university lobbyists with staggering six-figure salaries — paid for with tax dollars to lobby for more tax dollars.
While all of these extravagances continue to receive funding, some have even suggested a 2 percent cut to teachers’ salaries. This proposal comes after these same employees were hit this year with a mandatory increase in their retirement contributions, reducing their wages by another 1.5 percent.
Then, on top of all this, there is now talk that educators’ health care deductibles could nearly double next year, increasing their out of pocket expenses and further decreasing their take-home pay yet again.
Trust me, shortchanging education has dire consequences for New Mexico’s teachers and students. So before buying the line that, “Every program needs to be cut,” consider how the loss of even one excellent teacher compares to the loss of the governor’s jet or his third chef. There couldn’t be a stronger case for protecting our teachers.