The Board of Education unanimously voted to temporarily delay action on distributing $233,887.50 in funding from the STEM and Hard-to-Staff Teacher Initiative stipend, a pay stipend recently awarded to the district from the New Mexico Public Education Department (PED), Tuesday, Feb. 6 at the Board of Education Special Meeting.

Echoing comments from the National Education Association-Las Cruces, (NEA-LC) LCPS Superintendent Dr. Greg Ewing encouraged the Board to delay action on the item while district officials seek out more information from the PED and speak with NEA-LC and employee stakeholders. Click here to read of copy of the NEA-LC’s response.

According to the PED, “the purpose of these funds is to provide a $5,000, $7,500, and $10,000 stipend per year to effective, highly effective, and exemplary STEM (grades 6-12), Special Education (K–12), Bilingual (K–12) or other hard-to-staff teaching positions to serve in low performing (D/F) schools. These funds can be used as a stipend to recruit these hard-to-staff teachers to teach in hard-to-staff schools or to attract and retain these teachers in low-performing schools.”

District officials said the stipend is based on the PED’s flawed evaluation system and amounts to a merit-based pay incentive, something the administration has continued to voice opposition to.

“The application for this stipend was submitted by the previous administration, and my office was unaware it had been submitted,” Ewing said. “One of our chief concerns about this stipend is that we don’t know how or why the PED selected these 29 individuals for the stipend. Furthermore, the PED stipend seemingly rewards teachers at schools the PED itself has deemed as failing schools, which theoretically penalizes top-performing teachers at other schools.”

Ewing went on to explain that “we do not have failing schools or failing teachers in this district. We have teachers who work extremely hard…[and] from a pedagogical standpoint, the grading system which is currently in place would not pass reliability or validity scales found in any basic statistics course.”

Adding to the district’s concerns, Ewing said, “our colleagues in the legislature have yet to approve funding for this stipend. If the legislature were to deny funding for this initiative, we would have to use operational funding to cover these expenses. That is simply not something we’d be able or willing to do.”

Since district officials are seeking clarifying information about the stipend payments, the Board agreed to revisit the issue at the Feb. 20 Board meeting. In the meantime, Ewing said he will meet with NEA-LC representatives to draft a memorandum of understanding “since this violates the collective bargaining agreement in place.”

“I think we are being coerced by the Governor and the PED into a system which doesn’t address the issues which have the greatest impact on education,” said Board Member Maury Castro. “Instead of spending their time implementing initiatives like this, they need to empower the local school boards and focus their attention on addressing socioeconomic issues and declining revenues within the state.”

In his final remarks about the topic, Ewing added, “we should have never applied for this in the first place and we now have procedures in place to prevent that from happening in the future.”

Budget Update

Superintendent Dr. Greg Ewing announced that LCPS received a letter from the Public Education Department stating that the district is set to receive $1.3 million in additional State Equalization Guarantee (SEG) funding from the PED for the 2017-18 school year. Since the district was anticipating receipt of this additional funding, Ewing said the district already spent it by hiring a total of 30 new additional teachers and educational assistants to meet the needs of schools across the district.

In addition, Ewing said the district has started the preliminary planning stages of the budget development process for the next school year. “We invite our partners from NEA-LC and CSEC-LC and members of the community to come be part of this transparent process,” he added.

CSEC-LC Agreement Approved

Deputy Superintendent Gabe Jacquez announced that LCPS and the Classified School Employees Council – Las Cruces (CSEC-LC) ratified a new collective bargaining agreement for the 2017-18 school year. During the special meeting, the Board unanimously voted to approve the newly ratified agreement for the 2017-18 school year.

As part of the new agreement, all Nutrition Services staff on salary range 1 and cashiers on salary ranges 2-8 will receive a four percent pay increase and managers will receive a four and-a-half to five percent pay increase. Three Nutrition Services warehouse employees will move from range 1 to range 2 on the materials management salary schedule and will retain their current step on the new schedule.

In addition, classified employees, excluding Nutrition Services and Nutrition Services warehouse employees, will have two of their contract days converted into two paid “wellness days” which will function as paid personal days that can be used at each employee’s discretion. The agreement also states that CSEC-LC and LCPS will reopen negotiations regarding wages and allowances should there be a change to the financial situation of the district.

CSEC-LC President Irma Valdespino thanked Superintendent Dr. Greg Ewing for creating a new Classified Employee of the Year recognition program and said she would like to continue to work with the district to explore ways to increase wages for classified school employees.

“Please keep in mind that Nutrition Services employee salaries are funded by the USDA and not the district’s operational funds. This is why the nutrition services employees received a pay increase while other classified employees did not,” Valdespino said. “Our classified employees often work paycheck to paycheck and work multiple jobs just to maintain some sort of quality of life for their families. We need to do something to something to help our classified employees.”

Valdespino also announced that negotiations for the 2018-19 school year will likely start next month to coincide with the start of the budget development process.

Teacher Absences for Influenza

Superintendent Dr. Greg Ewing announced that the Public Education Department has instructed all New Mexico school districts to not penalize teachers for any absences due to influenza.

“Although we will follow these instructions to the letter, I have to ask, what happens if a teacher has strep throat or is going through dialysis or cancer treatment,” Ewing said. “This is why it becomes very difficult to delineate what is fair and not fair.”

In order to qualify for the excused absence, the memo stated that teachers would need to a doctor’s note, a requirement that drew a number of concerns from the administration. “Essentially, this means that we are asking our teachers to potentially spread their influenza, to pay for a doctor’s note and to provide us with confidential information about their health status.”

Ewing explained that officials will seek clarification from the PED about the requirement and investigate the legality of requiring employees to provide a note that contains a medical diagnosis.

“If you are sick, stay home. If your family is sick, stay home and take care of them. This administration will never punish an employee for absence due to illness,” Ewing said.

Construction Update

Deputy Superintendent Gabe Jacquez touted the recent ribbon cutting at Hermosa Heights Elementary School which unveiled $3.5 million worth of additions and renovations to the school.

Jacquez also announced that the discovery of exiting roofing issues during part of a renovation at Las Cruces High School will likely push back the original estimated completion date of March 2018.

“It will likely be a summer project. We don’t want to do any roofing work while the students are still in school,” Jacquez said.

Student Meal Charges Discussed

Deputy Superintendent Gabe Jacquez gave a brief presentation about current student meal charges across the district. During the presentation Jacquez announced that as of Jan. 29, 2018 the district had a total of $24,833.16 in unpaid student meal charges. These charges were only for full-priced meals charged by students.

Last year, the State of New Mexico adopted legislation that prohibits schools from discriminating against or stigmatizing children who have school meal debt or don’t have enough money to pay for meals at school.

To align with the statewide changes, LCPS adopted polices and regulations which stipulate that: If a student cannot pay for their meal, or has prior meal debt, they may charge the meal to the school— unless a parent or guardian provides the school with written permission to withhold a meal. Students shall not be expected to “work” for school meals and shall not be identified or stigmatized for not being able to pay for a meal or for having a meal debt.

Under the new policy, any unpaid school meal charges must be paid-off at the end of each school year using the district’s operational (non-federal) funds that are used to pay for things like field trips, school supplies and even employee salaries.

Jacquez also announced that as of Jan. 29, the district had $2,741.42 in unpaid reduced-price and free meal charges. Jacquez said these charges were offset by Organ Mountain Outfitter’s ongoing partnership that provides funding for unpaid reduced-price and free meal charges.

Joint Powers Agreement

Community Schools Coordinator David Greenberg presented a rough draft of a proposed Joint Powers Agreement between LCPS and the City of Las Cruces. The draft, adapted from a Joint Powers Agreement used by the ABC Community Schools Partnership in Albuquerque, is designed to provide guidelines which both the City of Las Cruces and LCPS can use to draft resolutions.

Other Board Business

Board Member Terrie Dallman, on behalf of Board President Maria Flores, nominated Mayor Ken Miyagishima for the New Mexico School Boards Association Excellence in Student Achievement Award. “He [Miyagishima] has done more than anyone would ask of any mayor.  From our administration’s standpoint, we wholeheartedly agree with this nomination,” said Superintendent Dr. Greg Ewing. The Board unanimously approved the nomination.

The Board held the second reading of Policy ADC regarding tobacco- and alcohol-free Schools.

Finally, the Board unanimously approved a Resolution which asks that there be a limit on the addition of private, for-profit charter schools. New Mexico is among a handful states that currently prohibit for-profit entities from applying to open for-profit charters.  The Resolution also states that 16 percent of all charter schools in the U.S. are operated by for-profit entities.

-LCPS Communications Coordinator Paul Dahlgren, pdahlgren@lcps.net, (575) 527-5808