Public servant helped make school funding more equitable

June 18, 2018

Harry Wugalter, one of the fathers of New Mexico’s lauded public school funding formula, died of natural causes in his home in Green Valley, Ariz., on June 6. He was 90, his daughter, Julie Zeilenga said.

Wugalter, a former Santa Fe resident, worked for the state’s Public School Finance Division for more than 15 years, serving six governors. It was under former Gov. Jack Campbell’s 1963-67 term that Wugalter and other financial analysts began developing the blueprint for the formula, known as the State Equalization Guarantee.

That formula, which accounts for more than 95 percent of school financing, funds districts by unit values partially tied to student population, though each unit does not correspond to a single student. Units instead represent the various educational needs of the district’s students as well as other factors.

Once the state Legislature approved the formula in 1974, Wugalter served as the public face for New Mexico in a lawsuit launched by Los Alamos Public Schools, which argued the formula was unfair to the district because it conflicted with a federal Atomic Energy Community Act that provided federal funds to communities housing employees working on atomic energy projects.

Both a state district judge and the state’s Court of Appeals ruled for the state, clearing the way for the formula to be implemented.

Former U.S. Sen. Jeff Bingaman, who as a lawyer represented the state in that case, said Wugalter was a key player in New Mexico’s educational community.

“Everything you would hope for in a public servant: extremely capable, very forthright, very committed to doing the right thing, and he had a great sense of humor,” Bingaman said.

“He had a deal of influence over what the state’s school districts did with their budgets and he took his job very seriously.”

Former Gov. Jerry Apodaca, who worked with Wugalter, said he was “very, very involved in the creation of the public school funding formula, which he worked on with a committee of people.”

The formula was one of the first in the country to use state funding to guarantee a per-pupil or per-teacher foundational level of funding, according to a Sept. 2017 Legislative Education Study Committee. “Prior to the 1970s most states funded public school operations through local property tax revenues, which sometimes led to inequities among districts because of difference in local property tax wealth,” that report said.

Wugalter, who was born in Camden, N.J., on Oct. 12, 1927, enlisted in the U.S. Marines upon graduating from high school in 1945. He served four years and then remained in the active reserves, getting called up again during the Korean War.

He moved to New Mexico in 1949 to study education at the University of New Mexico, using funds from the G.I. Bill to pay for his schooling.

“He thought that education gave people the opportunity to do things that you probably wouldn’t otherwise be able to do in the work world,” said Zeilenga. “Education opens doors, and he had a firm commitment to keeping that door open.”

Wugalter’s first job in public education was as a teacher in Albuquerque Public Schools. He then became business manager for the Grants school district before moving to Santa Fe in 1962, when he joined the Public School Finance Division. He retired from the state in 1978 to take a job with the Rockwell International Science Center.

Following his retirement from that job in the early 1990s, Wugalter and his wife, Cherrill, whom he married in 1951, moved to Green Valley. She died there in 2006.

Family members and friends held a service for Wugalter in Green Valley on Saturday. His daughter said she plans a private military ceremony for him at the Santa Fe National Cemetery sometime in the fall.

Wugalter is survived by Zeilenga and her husband, Jay.