SFPS joins districts statewide in suing state education department over '180-day rule'

Apr. 24—Santa Fe Public Schools and more than 50 other districts across the state have filed a lawsuit against the state Public Education Department and Public Education Secretary Arsenio Romero asking a court to halt a controversial rule mandating 180 instructional days.

The lawsuit, filed April 18 in the state's 9th Judicial District Court in Curry County by the New Mexico School Superintendents Association and individual superintendents, comes as public schools across New Mexico attempt to draft budgets and academic calendars for next year — a process complicated by the new requirements, particularly for rural districts operating on four-day weeks.

During a meeting last week, Santa Fe school board members bemoaned the 180-day rule as an "unfunded mandate" likely to squeeze the 2024-25 budget.

"This has been the most difficult year to figure out what your budget's going to look like, what the school calendar is going to look like and meet all the requirements," Superintendent Hilario "Larry" Chavez said during the meeting. "[It] almost feels like it's a moving target."

Chavez and school board President Sascha Anderson declined to comment on the lawsuit. Both said they were limited in what they could say about ongoing litigation.

The Public Education Department also declined to comment on the pending litigation, spokeswoman Janelle Taylor García wrote in an email.

However, she added, "We are fully committed to upholding our responsibilities and ensuring the best interests of our students while doing everything in our power to improve educational outcomes, including the increase in classroom time."

All five of the 9th Judicial District's judges already have recused themselves due to "bias or personal knowledge" of the case, court documents show. It will be up to the New Mexico Supreme Court to designate a judge to preside over the case.

Though Romero consistently has framed the 180-day requirement as the best option for the state's struggling students, Stan Rounds, executive director of the New Mexico Coalition of Educational Leaders, which includes the superintendents association, said the rule imposes unaccounted-for expenses for districts — from teacher time to meals to transportation — and jeopardizes school boards' local decision-making power. All of that, he said, creates "peril for rural education."

"Taking a one-size-fits-all policy — 180 days as the template and applying it across the state — that doesn't work in New Mexico," Rounds said.

The 180-day rule has been under fire since it was announced in November 2023. In December, educators, administrators and advocates provided hours of public testimony and thousands of pages of electronically submitted comments, the vast majority against the rule.

Lawmakers — including Republicans and Democrats — voiced their objections to the rule, too. Most recently, 40 Republican legislators earlier this month signed a letter imploring Romero to reconsider implementation of the 180-day rule.

One of the rule's strongest opponents, Rep. Gail Armstrong, R-Magdalena, invited Romero and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to ride the school bus with students from Quemado or Reserve — some two hours to school and two hours back.

The public outcry resulted in some changes. The final version of the rule, adopted in March, requires 180 instruction days but offers waivers for districts and schools excelling in reading and language arts. It also allows four-day school weeks, as long as schools meet the 180-day requirement.

Still, the superintendents' lawsuit argues the rule is "overreaching" and contrary to state statute, namely a bill signed into law in 2023 implementing new minimum instructional hour requirements.

Rounds said implementing the rule will increase costs for districts that weren't funded during this year's legislative session. More days means paying for more school meals, more bus trips and maintenance, and more teacher time for state-mandated professional development.

For rural districts — which can choose to make the transition from four-day to five-day weeks — Rounds anticipated transportation and meal costs could increase by 20% to 30% from the current year.

"Not only will this cause Plaintiffs to incur millions of additional dollars in operational and pupil transportation costs which they cannot sustain, Plaintiffs will also lose teachers, students, and staff as a result of the hardships imposed by Defendants' New Rule," the complaint states.

The lawsuit seeks a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction to stop implementation of the rule as soon as possible and maintain the status quo.

"The ask in the lawsuit is that we restrain the law or the rule and we continue current practice, allowing us time to navigate — legislatively, administratively or whatever — to resolve the matter," Rounds said.