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New Mexico bill seeks school board transparency, training

Las Cruces Public Schools Board of Education members and Superintendent Ralph Ramos conduct a meeting at the Dr. Karen M. Trujillo Administration Complex in 2021. School board members across New Mexico would be required to disclose campaign contributions under a measure that cleared its first legislative hurdle Feb. 18. (Miranda Cyr/The Las Cruces Sun News)
Bill would mandate disclosure of campaign contributions

ALBUQUERQUE – School board members across New Mexico would be required to disclose campaign contributions under a measure that cleared its first legislative hurdle on Saturday.

Currently only school board members representing districts that have more than 12,000 students are required to report donations, a threshold met by only four of the state's 89 districts.

“In the interest of transparency and fairness, communities, individuals, New Mexicans in small towns deserve to know what campaign contributions have been received by the candidates just as much as people in large towns do,” said Rep. Natalie Figueroa of Albuquerque. “So we're striking that exemption and saying, ‘Everybody, just everybody declare your campaign contributions.'”

The measure also would codify training requirements for board members and allow members to apply for a waiver to avoid state statutes prohibiting the hiring of family members. Supporters say it's often difficult for school districts in small communities to recruit people, and a waiver option could help.

Opponents say some mandates outlined in the bill would be burdensome, particularly the reporting of campaign contributions. They say candidates often use their own money to run and never receive outside donations.

Dymorie Maker, a member of the Lovington School Board and president of the New Mexico School Boards Association, said almost 60% of state school boards are in tiny communities.

“I grew up in a small community,” she told the lawmakers. “If you want to know who, what, where, when and how much, go to the post office, go to the coffee shop – it's there. This is a punitive measure in these small communities.”

The legislation's goal is to boost the quality of local school boards with enhanced training, accountability and transparency through reporting. It was developed by the nonpartisan group Think New Mexico, which recommended such reforms as part of a road map released last year amid persistent poor student performance.

Many districts already support training opportunities for board members when it comes to the legal aspects of their duties. But supporters said the legislation would go one step further by codifying training requirements and ensuring that members are up to speed on financing, budgeting and fiduciary responsibilities.

They also pointed to the importance of board members being knowledgeable about how they can evaluate the academic achievement of students and use data to set goals for each school.

Fred Nathan, executive director of Think New Mexico, said the role of a school board in determining the quality of public schools is often overlooked.

“School boards approve the district’s budget, hire the superintendent and ultimately set the tone, culture and expectations for superintendents and schools,” he said.

The measure also would require that board meetings be webcast and the recordings archived for public access.

The Legislature has reached the midpoint of its 60-day session, and the bill would have to clear one more committee before being taken up by the full House.