LAS CRUCES – A heated school board meeting lasted six-and-a-half hours — until 12:27 am — into the early hours of Wednesday. It resulted in a split vote which passed the proposed budget with no changes.
After a long list of recognitions and performances, which took up nearly the first two hours of the meeting, there was still a long list of items to address, including the proposed operating budget, which has caught the interest of community members.
Before the meeting began, members of the National Education Association of Las Cruces and the Classified School Employees Council of Las Cruces gathered outside of the Teaching and Learning Center, waving pickets and chanting for respect.
“Budgets are moral documents,” said NEA-LC President Denise Sheehan to the 40 or so LCPS staff members gathered outside before the board meeting. “Our budget is going to show the hard work of our board and our superintendent. They remind our students and our teachers that we’re headed in the right direction. So please, stand with us, please request — if you’re giving public comment — please ask that they do table it and that they actually do engage stakeholders.”
Public and union comments
Staff unions and community members’ problems do not lie solely with the budget, but with the allowance for community input, which they did not think was sufficient this year.
The survey’s deadline was either Friday, May 6, according to the NEA’s report, or Sunday, May 8, according to a district presentation. The final budget was released on Tuesday, May 10. A budget town hall meeting was held Thursday, May 12. The board voted to approve the budget on Tuesday, May 17.
Parent Michelle Granger, who has spoken at board meetings in the past, stepped up during public comment as a representative of Las Cruces Education Advocacy and Awareness.
“Your job is to make the district accountable for the hundreds of millions of dollars that passed through here,” Granger said. “That includes the schedule, the calendar, which affects 25,000 plus families that are kept to it, the curriculum. You set the standard and pace for the future of our children.”
Granger has spoken out against the balanced calendar that will begin the school year three weeks earlier than usual on July 20 and 21.
“Your job is not to sell the superintendent’s plan and bully parents and teachers into accepting whatever the administration wants,” Granger said. “This board is not really functioning as it’s intended; it’s kind of dysfunctional. It seems like there’s a pretty big lack of transparency between what the board decides, and how these decisions are made, even things down to the agenda of the meetings when they go on five and six hours, can you really get community input? Do you really want community input, when they’re so cumbersome and take so long to get through? That’s just a symptom of the much larger problem that’s happening on this specific board .”
Six others spoke against the budget. After public comment, the union representatives both spoke against the budget as well.
“We hope that tabling today’s budget can be the beginning of that inclusive and transparent process,” said Sheehan on behalf of the NEA-LC.
CSEC-LC President Irma Valdespino pointed to the past budget finance committee, which board member Bob Wofford was part of when he was still teaching at Las Cruces High.
“That budget committee, they were representatives from staff, from parents, from community leaders. That was really true transparency; that was really true engagement,” Valdespino said. “I hope it’s brought back. It needs to be brought back. Because then you will not have people from the community, various organizations, parents (speaking out).”
Addressing ‘special interests’
LCPS Chief Financial Officer Ed Ellison presented the proposed budget to the school board.
Ellison said that the only community input required for the creation of the budget is the budget town hall that was held on May 12. Only two NEA members attended in person and 11 viewed the town hall online.
Ellison said the survey — which received 1,400 responses — was a reflection of the already-proposed budget. He said is meant to serve as a reassurance that the team is on the right track because the team already had a good grasp on what the community wanted.
The top three priorities assessed by the district were: social-emotional learning, facility improvements and school entry security improvements.
However, the contents of the survey itself have been under scrutiny. The questions on the survey were all multiple choice. There were no open-ended questions where community members could list specific priorities. Several union and community members pointed out there was nothing addressing class sizes in the survey, which is a subject that is brought up by the public at nearly every board meeting.
“Those responses are people who, innocently, think, like, ‘Okay, I’m just gonna answer this and these are my choices,’ but it hadn’t been open-ended,” board Vice President Teresa Tenorio said. “Maybe they would have considered other ideas. So great responses, but the priorities — whose priorities were they? I don’t know. And I sit on the finance subcommittee, and on this board, I don’t know whose priorities those were .”
Ellison said that the survey is something that LCPS does extra. Many school districts do not offer any public input.
“As far as giving the special interest or different groups or community members or others the opportunity to dig through the budget in much, much detail — I don’t know if that’s necessarily something that would happen at that level of detail,” Ellison said . “Definitely, we could provide more opportunity for input and discussion.”
Later he said, “I honestly don’t see what providing more public input to this is going to change in the budget, other than making certain special interests feel better about themselves.”
Ellison’s multiple comments about “special interests” were taken to heart by the board and several community members.
“When you talk about ‘special interests,’ I don’t see teachers and parents as special interests,” Tenorio said. “I just want to allow them a little bit more time to communicate with you all. Consider it educational, informational, the same opportunity that you allow us.”
Ellison said he stood by the budget, and he didn’t see how any more public input at this time could improve it.
“Honestly, any changes to it would only derogate the integrity of the budget,” Ellison said. “So I don’t see any significant changes to the budget as we proposed, unless the board has something specific that they want us to change.”
A conflicted board
Board President Ray Jaramillo agreed with Ellison, saying that he feels confident in the current budget. He said he couldn’t see any significant changes that could be made in a week or two by putting off a vote.
“We move this (discussion) and we open (another survey) up for one more week, what changes?” Jaramillo asked. “I just don’t understand. So we open it for one week, and we get 500 comments, or 500 in there. (With a delay, the district budget team has) less time because now we got to get it in there into PED (Public Education Department) by June 2.” So we’re still under those three or four days that we have to do things. So what changes?”
Jaramillo refers to the June 2 budget submission deadline to the PED. Ultimately, the district told the board there could be changes made to next year’s budget process, but there is little time to do so this year. Changes mentioned include a longer time period for board members to look over the budget (currently a minimum of seven days), a longer time period for community input and reforming a budget finance committee with more community representation.
The presentation and discussion of the budget alone took about two-and-a-half hours.
Tenorio wanted to table the full meeting by 11:15, saying she wanted to give the community more input time and that she herself was worn out.
“I’m just not going to beat around the bush, I would really like to continue this conversation at a special meeting. Whether that be next week or the week after that, if possible. I can’t continue this kind of conversation tonight . I just don’t have it in me.”
At about 11:30 a.m., the board took a vote on whether to table the budget to a special meeting. The motion was rejected, with Jaramillo, Cort and Bob Wofford voting against the tabling, and Tenorio and Carol Cooper voting in favor to table.
Another half-hour later, minutes before midnight, the board voted in favor of the budget, Jaramillo, Cooper and Wofford voted in favor. Tenorio and Cort against.
The budget is a “working document,” meaning there can be slight changes made as the year progresses as needed.
Miranda Cyr, a Report for America corps member, can be reached at email@example.com or @mirandacyr on Twitter. Show your support for the Report for America program at https://bit.ly/LCSNRFA.
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