State funding cuts hit local charter schools hard

(Photo from Red River Valley Charter School’s GoFundMe page)

A massive state revenue deficit has left Red River Valley Charter School, Moreno Valley High School and Cimarron schools across the board scrambling to address budget shortfalls.

During the recent Governance council meeting for Red River Valley Charter School Monday (March 20), Sean Fry, Business Manager at The Vigil Group, LLC who manages the school’s accounts following the retirement of longtime manager Domingo Sanchez, told the group, “If things stay where they are, you will fall short on your payrolls from the middle to the end of June…. The bottom line is, the school is about $30,000 short to finish out the year.

Karen Phillips, the school’s director, noted, “Larger schools have fluff to cut” and later added, “Enrollment is down by one (75 students)”. We’re having students relocate but our enrollment for next year is between 75 and 80 students. I think we’ll be fine for next year.”

Phillips said the school has already taken some measures that include a spending freeze, suspending funding for substitute teachers and limiting staff to “necessary medical leave and emergency family leave.

During the meeting council approved a reduction in force (RIF) proposal by Phillips to eliminate the school nurse — Pam Arterburn. In her written proposal, Phillip’s said, “the duties of the position… can be fulfilled by several staff members, now trained to provide the medical assistance for the one student who required the [nurse’s] services.”

When questioned by council vice president Rob Swan why the nurse was needed in the first place, Phillips clarified the student had become more independent and staff was not previously confident to provide the needed services.

The RIF, Phillips noted, will save the school a bit less than $8,000.

The school’s counselor has also “laid herself off” adding additional savings, Phillips said.

Phillips noted the projected shortfall takes the RIF and other cuts into account.

On August 24, 2016, Deborah Baker of the Albuquerque Journal reported, The decline in oil and natural gas prices has savaged the state’s finances. There was an 8.7 percent drop in revenue, or $545 million, in the just-ended budget year from the previous year.

Although the governor wanted the deficit to be zeroed out through a combination of tapping into state oil and gas reserve funds and cuts, after a 60-day legislative session, a budget — with proposed tax increases — has landed on her desk.

A March 20 Albuquerque Journal story (Governor likely to call special session ‘soon’”) noted, “A special [legislative] session is expected this year because Martinez has said she would veto both the lawmakers’ $6.1 billion spending plan and $350 million package of tax increases to help pay for it.”

State legislators predicted a failure to address the problem could lead to “the cancellation of public school days and unpaid furloughs for teachers.” (“Legislature urged to act fast to fix state budget” in the Dec. 13th, 2016, Albuquerque Journal)

Red River Valley Charter School leaders, teachers, council members and parents are not waiting for the special session and are instead proceeding to offset the potential deficit.

The school’s Facebook page notes, “We cannot foresee what the state will do next year or what condition our state budget will be in. We need these funds to get us through the rest of this year so we will have a chance to be open. We have always been fiscally responsible and will continue to do so.”

March 15, Heather Buchanan Larson, who is the governance council secretary and the parent of two students, posted a GoFundMe with a $35,000 goal noting, “We cannot imagine our community without our school. We are working hard to continue providing excellent education and raise the funds to support our students.”

That fundraiser had received $2,450 in donations at press time Tuesday (March 21).

Teacher Rebecca Ramsey Pockrandt, along with her 7th and 8th grade student, held a bake sale that raised $3,700. 

Donors have also begun to step up like part-time resident and retired teacher Boo Miller, who donated $4,000 and David Wilcox, owner of Reservations Unlimited, who donated $1,200.

Larson noted customers could also use and choose the “Red River Valley Educational Foundation” to help the school.

Phillips said other fundraisers, like a cookie dough sale, Krispy Kreme donut sale and art event are forthcoming. Additionally, local musician Fritz Davis, who also owns the Red River Miner, is offering — along with local musicians Mike Addington, K. Bolan, Jeff Fagan and Michael Smith — to perform for free in a Thursday (April 6) concert at the Red River Conference Center.

With results from fundraising efforts still unknown, Phillips told council members a five-day furlough for all staff members in June at the end of fiscal year 2016-2017 may still be needed. “I would recommend that we not make any furlough decision until May,” Phillips said. “It should be the last resort, in my opinion.”

Larson asked, “What do we need to raise to avoid the furlough?”

Phillips replied, “$35,000. When we meet again in April we’ll have a better idea of whether or not we’re going to make it. Our budget is actually due April 21 so we will be getting those numbers shortly.”

Phillips said she plans to send parents an “information letter” soon that will explain what is happening with school finances and resulting fundraising efforts.”

Cimarron Schools also face huge shortfall

During a March 10 governing council special meeting at Moreno Valley High School (MVHS) Cimarron Municipal Schools Superintendent Adán Estrada reported the school is facing a potential shortfall of $120,000.

During the discussion that followed, it was noted that MVHS’s shortfall come from a combination of decreased state funding and decreased enrollment at the charter high school.

In a follow up email to The Chronicle, Estrada wrote, “”MVHS, with a program cost of $790,227, has already been cut $28,992 in the current year and an additional 5 percent cut that is expected next year would steal an additional $38,919 from their revenue. 

“The largest hardship has been that, after a year of being at a temporary location during the construction phase of their new school, enrollment numbers have gone down this year from 74 to about 53.”

Adan concluded, “The high school may see a budget cut of $120,000 to $160,000 for next year.” 

Moreno Valley High School’s new campus was completed in fall 2016. (Chronicle file photo by Ellen Miller-Goins)

MVHS Governing Council President Tammy DeVine told The Chronicle council will begin to address potential budget shortfalls during the April 5 regular governing council meeting, 5:15 p.m. at the school.

Asked about state budget cuts’ impact on the district, Estrada wrote, “Cimarron Schools, with a program cost of $4,018,338, has already reduced $60,271” and added, “$81,837 was recaptured from their cash balance and transportation funding was cut $54,000 for the current school year.  Now legislators are predicting a further cut in next year’s budget of 5 percent ($197,902).

During the March meeting, Estrada asked parents and community members to support efforts to raise taxes for public schools. “If I could appeal to the community that we need your help and support to rally for public education. I think people in New Mexico are willing to increase taxes if it goes directly to students services. The good news is we have a wonderful charter school and we have people willing to support it.”