Projected $2.3 million school budget deficit in Santa Fe could hurt at-risk students

April 25, 2019 GMT

A program operated through Communities In Schools — a local nonprofit that helps connect students with counselors, tutors and mentors — is one of several initiatives that could take a hit as public school leaders in Santa Fe wrangle with a projected budget deficit.

The expected shortfall comes as Santa Fe Public Schools also is set to receive a significant increase in state money for 2019-20, about $7.1 million, following a legislative overhaul in how New Mexico funds its education system.

School board members and administrators say that increase is being offset, however, by a mandatory 6 percent salary increase for all employees, which will cost about $6.7 million. The district’s budget also will decline in the coming year because it has relied this year on a one-time cash infusion — $2.55 million — from the sale of the old Alvord Elementary School in the Railyard to pay for several new programs and positions.

Add in higher costs for insurance, employee benefits and utilities, and the deficit is about $2.3 million.

School board members and administrators gathered Monday night and discussed efforts to whittle that figure down to just over $120,000.

Special-education expenses are expected to be lower in 2019-20, officials said — due to declining enrollment rather than fewer services — and some programs funded by the Alvord sale will have to be scaled back; these include math and science initiatives, computer science and coding programs, and an effort to boost first grade literacy.

Communities In Schools of New Mexico also might see its allocation from the district slashed.

The 7-year-old nonprofit now provides 15 workers called site coordinators in 11 public schools — up from eight last year. The site coordinators work closely with hundreds of at-risk students to ensure they have support services outside the classroom that the organization says empower kids to succeed in school and stay enrolled. These range from ensuring basic needs are met, such as food, housing and health care, to finding academic tutors, mental health counselors and career counselors.

Next month, Communities In Schools will host a graduation ceremony for 15 to 20 high school seniors who have received support from the nonprofit since they were in elementary school.

The local group is part of a national dropout prevention organization that began operating in Santa Fe in 2012; though, it is rooted in a much older community effort here to address the needs of some of the district’s poorest students.

The district has been supplementing the nonprofit’s budget each year since 2013, an allocation that increased to $450,000 this year from $200,000 so the growing program could expand to three more schools.

During the school board finance subcommittee meeting Monday, district officials estimated the allocation for Communities In Schools would be cut back to $200,000. The decline raised concerns among board members about whether the nonprofit could continue to operate at 11 sites — more than a third of the district’s schools.

“Can we hypothetically do what [Communities In Schools] does on our own? Yes,” school board member Maureen Cashmon said. “Do we have the money to hire the counselors to do that? No. We need this partnership. Ideally, we would have them in all of our schools.”

While school leaders and Communities In Schools officials acknowledged the extra $250,000 the group received from the district this year was understood to be a one-time infusion during a year of expansion, the loss represents more than 15 percent of the nonprofit’s current budget.

Director of Development Sonja Thorpe Bohannon said the largest share of the group’s budget, now around $1.6 million, comes from private donations, including from foundations, individuals and small businesses. Santa Fe Public Schools’ contribution increased to 28 percent of the nonprofit’s budget this year from about 17 percent in previous years.

“I never sit back comfortably about our funding,” Bohannon said. “It a never-ending endeavor to ensure our ability to pay the salary of our on-site coordinators.”

The organization had hoped to continue expanding to more schools in the district, she said, “but we certainly don’t have $200,000 in our back pocket.”

Cashmon and fellow board member Steven Carrillo called it a top priority to identify more funding for Communities In Schools in the district’s budget.

Superintendent Veronica García said she was prepared to makes changes to the draft budget in the coming weeks before a final proposal is due to the New Mexico Public Education Department on June 5.

“We’re still early in the game,” García said. “… What I will be doing is bringing back to the board a menu of options, and one might have more support for Communities In Schools.”