ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — A New Mexico court ruling clarifies questions about the state’s school funding formula, saying education officials need federal approval before withholding certain funding for public school districts.
The ruling by the New Mexico Supreme Court this week involves a 2010 case brought by the Zuni school district.
The dispute centered on the state’s public school funding formula, which takes into account federal dollars meant to help districts that have a limited tax base due to tribal lands, military installations or other federal lands that are exempt from property taxes.
The court found the state erred in lowering the district’s monthly allotments of state equalization funding before getting approval from the U.S. Education Department.
The court also found that the school district ended up getting more than it was entitled to in state aid for the 2010 fiscal year so it denied Zuni’s request for more funding.
Ronald Van Amberg, a Santa Fe attorney who represents the district, said his clients were disappointed with the ruling. He said they have not decided on their next legal step.
It’s also unclear what effect the ruling might have on other school districts around the state.
New Mexico Public Education Department Lida Alikhani said the agency’s legal counsel was reviewing the ruling.
The Zuni school district argued that the Public Education Department was wrongly lowering its monthly state aid allotments to adjust for the federal aid without permission from the U.S. Education Department.
The state appellate court in 2017 ruled that New Mexico could make deductions for state school funding received by the Zuni district only in the months after the federal certification was received. The district appealed.
The Supreme Court determined the Public Education Department, once it received federal certification, was allowed to adjust the state equalization funding for the entire 2010 fiscal year.
The court acknowledged that going forward, if the state receives federal certification late in the fiscal year, that could lead to some districts having to refund the state if the federal aid is higher than anticipated.
In Zuni’s case, the court determined the district received about $217,000 more in state equalization aid than it was entitled to under the funding system in 2010.