New Mexico's lowest-paid teachers are in for a raise.
Gov. Susana Martinez said Monday she will sign Senate Bill 119, increasing the minimum salaries for teachers, with the lowest level of pay rising from $34,000 a year to $36,000.
Teachers unions and school administrators alike cheered the move, arguing it will help recruit educators and keep them in the profession. And it comes the same year that lawmakers approved an average raise of 2.5 percent for teachers. But there also has been plenty of criticism this year that legislators did not do more to boost funding for schools or overhaul education policies.
"While there's still more work to be done, this legislation is an important step in continuing to give our students, teachers and schools the resources they need to succeed," Martinez said in a statement.
Though school districts have their own union contracts and pay scales, state law sets three different minimum salaries for teachers based on experience and education.
Annual budgets passed by the Legislature over the last several years have set higher minimums.
For example, state law sets the minimum salary for Level 1 teachers -- usually educators in their first years on the job -- at $30,000. But last year's state budget set the minimum salary for that same level at $34,000.
Legislative aides analyzed Public Education Department data on salaries for more than 19,000 teachers and found the new minimum salaries will be higher than the average for each level.
For example, Level 1 teachers earn an average of $35,402. Their minimum salary will go up under this new bill to $36,000 a year. Level 2 teachers will see salaries raised from $42,000 under last year's budget to $44,000 and Level 3 teachers will go from a minimum of $52,000 to $54,000.
Senate Bill 119 was sponsored by Sens. Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, Gay Kernan, R-Hobbs, and Bill Soules, D-Las Cruces. It passed both the Senate and House of Representatives without opposition.
"After years of increases through the Legislative budgetary process, concrete statute-based raises to salary minimums is welcome news," said Stephanie Ly, president of the American Federation of Teachers New Mexico.
Administrators argued the measure will help school districts recruit and retain teachers, particularly in parts of the state such as Las Cruces and Hobbs where educators might consider jobs just across the state line in Texas, where the pay is higher.
"One thing Texas beats us on on is the ability to pay higher salaries," said Stan Rounds, executive director of the New Mexico Coalition of Educational Leaders. "We struggle to compete."
Martinez criticized lawmakers for shooting down a Republican-sponsored bill that would have raised minimum salaries even higher for Level 1 teachers to $38,000 instead of $36,000.
House Bill 310 also would have provided $5 million for teacher recruitment efforts.
But teachers unions and Democrats opposed the measure, arguing that giving a particularly big boost to beginning teachers ignored the need to help retain educators already on the job and stanch turnover in the profession. Moreover, critics argued the measure was not built into the budget.
Charles Goodmacher, of the National Education Association-New Mexico, said the union applauds the raises that passed the Legislature this year but argued the public school system needs an even bigger boost in funds.
"Every increase in compensation for teachers for the hard work they do is greatly appreciated. We'd still like to see more increases in funding for programs so they can have smaller classes, more social workers and counselors," he said. "If you look at it from the point of view of students, there are so many things we could be doing here in New Mexico that are known to make a difference for students, and the reason we're not doing those things is because we're underfunding our schools."
The announcement from Martinez came as she was traveling in Utah for a meeting of the Republican Governors Association. The outgoing two-term governor is set to return Tuesday.
Wednesday is the last day for her to sign legislation passed during the 30-day session that ended last month.
The state's $6.3 billion budget for the fiscal year that begins in July is still awaiting the governor's signature. It would provide 2 percent pay raises for state employees, with bigger raises for public safety personnel such as state police. It also would restore some of the funds cut from school district reserves in recent years.
On the governor's desk, too, are bills that would provide tax credits for installing solar energy systems at homes and small businesses, to hold most local elections on a single day in a bid to boost voter turnout and change the state's lottery scholarship program to give students a set amount of money each year instead of a percentage of tuition.
Any bill she does not sign by this week's deadline will be automatically vetoed.
Contact Andrew Oxford at 505-986-3093 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @andrewboxford.