Albuquerque school district backtracks on COVID bonuses

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — The superintendent of New Mexico’s largest school district has backtracked on a promise to channel federal relief of at least $6 million toward staff bonuses — after state auditors warned that handing out the bonuses would probably violate state constitutional provisions against giving away taxpayer dollars.

Scott Elder, the recently appointed superintendent of Albuquerque Public Schools, last week announced that the district would give $1,000 each to full-time teachers and staff or $500 bonuses to part-timers as a “one-time additional payment for COVID-related work” since the outbreak of the pandemic.

But in an online video on Tuesday, Elder said the bonus payments had been flagged as a potential violation of the anti-donation clause within the New Mexico Constitution.

“I have some extremely difficult news to share and I ask that you not lose faith,” Elder said. “I just don’t want you to plan for money that may not arrive.”

District spokeswoman Monica Armenta said the bonuses were proposed by several unions, community members and school employees. Payments were scheduled for about 12,000 employees.

State Auditor Brian Colón told The Associated Press that the anti-donation clause of the New Mexico Constitution prohibits retroactive compensation after services are rendered and that the proposed bonuses likely would have resulted in an audit finding “or other potential violations of law.”

“It’s very disappointing that Albuquerque Public Schools didn’t do its homework and follow the rules,” he said. “We have given consistent guidance on this question throughout the pandemic.”

Colón added: “Unfortunately, I know that education professionals have worked tirelessly throughout the pandemic and there are going to be a lot of disappointed folks out there, including my wife,” who is a teacher at Van Buren Middle School in Albuquerque.

Elder hinted at an unspecified new plan to pay employees for “extra COVID-related work that we know lies ahead.”

Colón said the state’s anti-donation clause is designed to protect against abuses of power by official who make donations or give gifts that are inappropriate uses of tax dollars.