Court Finds New Mexico Violated Education-Funding Law

(CN) – New Mexico’s Public Education Department broke the law when it deducted payments to a school district in the Zuni Pueblo reservation that received federal impact aid, the state’s high court ruled Monday.

As in other states, the funding of public schools in New Mexico has been hotly contested and the subject of a number of high-profile legal battles.

The Zuni Public School District is located in the Indian reservation called the Zuni Pueblo. It receives federal money under the Impact Aid Act.

The Zuni Pueblo, largely inhabited by native Zuni people, had around 6,000 residents listed in the 2010 census.

While it is generally illegal for a state to reduce the amount of state funding to a school district based on it receiving impact aid, there is an exception. If the Department of Education certifies that the state has a defined program for equalized funding, the state can reduce the amount.

The Zuni Public School District sued the Public Education Department in 2010 for allegedly illegal deductions of anticipated impact aid payments for the fiscal year.

The school district claimed the deductions of State Equalization Guarantee Distribution (SEG) payments were illegal because they were made before the Department of Education certified it to do so.

The district court concluded that the deductions were authorized because the state was eventually certified the same year. An appellate court judge disagreed, and ruled that the deductions were not allowed by either state or federal law.

In response, the Public Education Department petitioned the state Supreme Court for a writ of certiorari, raising the issues of whether the offset taken for impact aid payments were authorized.

The deductions were violations of both the Federal Impact Aid Act and the Public School Finance Act, the court ruled Monday.

“The monthly SEG distribution payments are the State’s primary source of funding for the districts,” Judge Petra Jimenez Maes wrote in the 25-page opinion. “They are not merely ‘estimates,’ but actual, tangible funds paid to the districts throughout the year to enable the districts to operate.”

“Zuni was deprived of the use of approximately $4.6 million over ten months because the Department took into consideration anticipated impact aid prior to the state obtaining certification.”

But once it was certified, the department had the authority to make the deductions, the court found.

The court ordered the department to in the future base its SEG distribution payments on a preliminary figure, and not to take the school district’s impact aid into account until there is official approval from the federal government.

Maes’ opinion was joined by Chief Justice Judith K. Nakamura, and Justices Edward L. Chavez, Charles W. Daniels and Barbara J. Vigil.

Last year, a consolidated lawsuit by a number of school districts, students and parents culminated in an 8-week trial.

The plaintiffs claim the state denied students quality education in a way that violated their constitutional rights. In particular, it impacts students with disabilities, students who are Native American or English learners, and low-income students, they claimed.

Last month, attorneys from the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty filed closing briefs in their action. Judge Sarah Singleton is expected to rule on the briefs this spring.

And in 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court validated the state’s public school funding formula in a split 5-4 decision.

That decision stemmed from a lawsuit filed in the 1999-2000 school year, where a number of school districts claimed officials used the wrong funding formula to purposefully shortchange them.

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