New Mexico education officials miss transparency deadline

By Cedar Attanasio, Associated Press/Report for America

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — An initiative aimed at providing greater accountability for public spending on education missed its inaugural deadline.

The New Mexico Public Education Department acknowledged Tuesday that it missed a year-end deadline to launch a website to provide details about how much schools spend and on what.

The site went live following inquiries Monday from The Associated Press, but without financial information from most individual schools.

Lawmakers and transparency advocates decried the delay, which ran afoul of state statute.

“Yes, by missing the deadline PED is out of compliance with the law. It is no surprise considering that the governor has had three public education (secretaries) in just two years,” wrote Republican Rep. Rebecca Dow, of Truth or Consequences, in an email.

Dow was one of three lawmakers who advanced the law to create the transparency portal, allocating $3 million to fund the effort.

The deadline was the first of an annual reporting schedule mandated by a transparency law passed by the state Legislature in 2020 and signed by Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.

Lujan Grisham is running for reelection this year, and Dow is running for the Republican nomination in a bid to challenge her.

The agency had promoted the website starting in August with a countdown clock set to hit zero on Dec. 31. On Monday and Tuesday, the countdown clock on the website read “0,” while a note below said the project is “on schedule and on budget.”

“It’s disappointing that they missed this deadline,” said Shannon Kunkel, executive director of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government. “Public officials have a responsibility to get timely information out that would affect policy decisions.”

The state transparency website could make it easier to see details of how much schools spend on administrative costs, like central office workers, versus classroom costs, like teacher salaries and student supplies.

Data on the website could inform policymakers who sit down next week to forge the state’s education budget, likely to exceed $3 billion.

“It is imperative for parents and taxpayers to easily see and understand how school districts and charter schools are spending their dollars since this spending directly impacts their children and they may have good questions or suggestions on how best to spend this money,” Fred Nathan Jr., executive director of Think New Mexico, a nonpartisan education policy group, said in a statement.

On Monday, Think New Mexico renewed support for a law that would cap growth in administrative spending in school districts, arguing classroom spending is more impactful than administrative spending.

Citing data from 2007 to 2017, the organization says administrative spending on central office staff grew 34% while spending on teacher salaries and classroom materials grew by around 4%.

After questions from the AP on Monday, the Public Education Department held a meeting with its software vendor, according to spokeswoman Judy Robinson.

The site went live before noon Tuesday, with a note that it’s a work in progress.

“The portal was ready in mid-December and ‘soft-launched’ at that time,” Robinson said.

That beta testing came at the tail end of a planned six-month window for school district superintendents and financial officers to test-drive the software. Robinson said those users flagged concerns about the site’s functionality.

Other advocates pointed out that the website published on Tuesday is incomplete. It includes district spending data but lacks school-level data except for charter schools.

“The intent was always to create a site whereby any parents, principal, educator, policymaker could get online and see a budget for each school. And that’s the piece that’s missing from the site as it stands right now,” said Amanda Aragon, executive director of NewMexicoKidsCAN, another nonpartisan education policy group.

In a statement, Robinson said the department won’t begin to collect the school-level data until fiscal year 2023, which starts this summer, long after the education budget is written into law by the Legislature and approved or vetoed by the governor.

Robinson wrote that the Public Education Department “believes it is following the law and meeting the requirements of the legislation.”

Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues. This story was produced under RFA’s America Statehouse News Initiative.

This story originally published Jan. 13, 2022, on Youth Today.

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