Board members lament lack of control

By Marlena Hartz: CNJ staff writer

As more and more mandates are handed down from the state and federal government, eastern New Mexico school board members feel more and more inert.

“We used to make decisions. Now we just rubber-stamp,” said a frustrated Rex Rush, vice president of the Melrose school board.

“We don’t have enough power anymore to do what we want to do,” he continued during a Tuesday meeting of the New Mexico School Boards Association Region Five.
Specific mandates have incited the ire of school board members.

One mandate determines raises for school staff. This year, the state salary system guaranteed educational assistants 9.5-percent raises and certified and non-certified staff 5-percent raises.

Legislators and others said the raises were necessary to retain quality teachers in New Mexico.

But because the system was underfunded in many districts, schools across New Mexico cut staff to pay for the raises. This year in Clovis Municipal Schools, 15 teaching positions, 14 educational assistant positions, and three full-time and two part-time administrative positions were cut.

“You can’t hire a teacher anymore,” said Rush, who has served on the Melrose school board for more than 15 years. “You can’t fire a teacher anymore. You even have to pay them a certain amount.”

Another controversial mandate: Testing that is part of the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

In New Mexico, schools spend more than $40 million a year on mandated testing, according to Clovis Municipal Schools Superintendent Rhonda Seidenwurm. Disregarding the mandates of NCLB, however, is not an option in New Mexico with millions of dollars in federal funding at stake, educators and legislators say.
Controversial mandates do not end there.

Clovis school board Vice President Max Best can rattle off a list of fresh mandates that strip power from boards: Personnel matters no longer fall under the jurisdiction of board members, but superintendents; capital outlay projects to fix ailing roofs and aging buildings must be approved by the state; even the diets of students are largely dictated by the Wellness Policy, enacted this year through the New Mexico Public Education Department and the New Mexico Department of Health.

“We can’t have Cokes in schools anymore. That is just one small example,” Best said.

Best said many educational issues are best handled locally.

“What works in Farmington may not work in Clovis. We feel like we know the needs of our community and what our community expects out of our educational system better than someone in Santa Fe,” Best said.

New Mexico School Boards Association Executive Director Mack Mitchell said most school board members are frustrated by growing mandates.

“It makes you feel like you have very little authority,” he said during the Tuesday meeting.

“The issue is they (the state and federal government) have the authority to do with the money what they want to,” Mitchell said.

State and federal mandates, however, aren’t likely to disappear, according to Best.
“Once you have reached this degree of central regulation, it is rare the Congress and legislators will relinquish control,” he said.

Some state guidelines are necessary in education, according to Sen. Gay Kernan, R-Hobbs, a member of the Legislative Education Committee. State standards and benchmarks, she said, prepare students for college and help ensure students are at the same level as their peers in other locales.

“It allows us as a state to prepare our students to go from the secondary level to the post-secondary level successfully,” she said.

Kernan added it is important to fully fund all state mandates.

A spokeswoman with the New Mexico Public Education Department had not responded to Clovis News Journal inquiries as of press time.