By Fred Nathan, Executive Director, Think New Mexico
School boards are an often-undervalued piece of the puzzle in improving New Mexico's public schools. They play a critically important role in setting the tone, culture, and expectations for the schools they oversee.
Last year, Think New Mexico published a report titled: A Roadmap for Rethinking Public Education in New Mexico, which proposed a sweeping ten-point plan with 30 separate legislative recommendations to improve the performance of New Mexico's public schools. One of those planks highlighted research demonstrating that local school boards can positively impact the learning environment when they are focused on elevating student achievement.
House Bill 325 is based on the proposals in our report. It is sponsored by Representative Natalie Figueroa (D-Albuquerque), a high school teacher, and Representative Gail Armstrong (R-Magdalena), a former school board member.
The bill aims to strengthen school boards by enhancing their training, increasing their accountability to the public, and adding transparency to school board elections and meetings.
Currently, school board members are only required to receive five hours of training per year, focused primarily on the basic legal aspects of the board role. House Bill 325 would enhance that training to include public school finance and budgeting; the role of local school boards in improving student academic performance; and best practices for working effectively with their superintendent.
New Mexico's school superintendents tend to have a short tenure, averaging less than two years. This instability makes it difficult for districts to set an academic vision and follow it through. One reason cited by superintendents for leaving their positions is lack of support from their school boards, which could be improved if board members had better training about how to support and supervise their superintendents.
Similarly, school boards collectively spend over $4 billion of state taxpayer dollars annually, and they would benefit from more training in how to understand and evaluate school district budgets.
The core duty of a school board is to foster an environment focused on student success. In North Dakota, school boards receive targeted training each year during which they set academic goals for their districts and are taught how to support and evaluate progress toward that goal. This sort of training helps ensure that student outcomes remain at the center of a school board's deliberations.
Along with enhanced training, House Bill 325 would increase the accountability of school boards by requiring that members step down if they violate the law against nepotism. New Mexico is one of just 13 states with no penalty for nepotism by school board members. (Because some very small communities have a limited population from which to hire employees, the bill allows districts under 500 students to apply for a waiver from the Public Education Department if a family member of a school board member is the only qualified applicant for a job.)
House Bill 325 would increase the transparency of school board elections by requiring all school board candidates to disclose their campaign contributions. Under current law, only school districts with more than 12,000 students have to make these disclosures; that is just four of the state's 89 school districts. The public has a right to know who is influencing school board elections.
House Bill 325 would also increase transparency by requiring that school board meetings be webcast and the recordings posted publicly. This would make it easier for families to participate in school board meetings without having to drive long distances each way, as many currently do in rural communities. More public input ultimately leads to better decisions.
Along with Think New Mexico, House Bill 325 is supported by the American Federation of Teachers, Common Cause New Mexico, the League of Women Voters, the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce, the New Mexico Chamber of Commerce, Teach Plus New Mexico, and reform-minded school board members from across the state.
If you share our support for these reforms, we encourage you to visit Think New Mexico's website at www.thinknewmexico.org, where you can easily contact the governor and your legislators and urge them to enact House Bill 325.