School board cites funding, guns and climate among 2023 legislative priorities

Dec. 9—Combating climate change, tougher gun control laws and state funding to replace soon-to-disappear federal coronavirus relief dollars are among the priorities Santa Fe Public Schools officials plan to push in the upcoming legislative session.

Board members and district staff talked about the policies they support at a school board meeting Thursday night and plan to share their priorities with local legislators during the Santa Fe school board's legislative breakfast Jan. 5 prior to the start of the 2023 session on Jan. 17.

Doing more about climate change is a priority shared by students as well, said board Secretary Sascha Anderson.

"Our youth had input into incorporating that into a legislative priority. We've been talking about incorporating the youth voice more into the board, and I think obviously the climate crisis is a huge, huge worry for young people. Having them have a voice in front of our legislators is really important," Anderson said.

Santa Fe Public Schools has made some major strides in implementing climate-friendly policy in the past decade, said Superintendent Hilario "Larry" Chavez. The latest numbers indicate the district's natural gas use has decreased by 24 percent, water use by 60 percent and electricity by 28 percent since 2010, he said, and much of campus waste is recycled or composted, resulting in 30 percent less trash ending up in the landfill.

But more can be done to make Santa Fe schools kinder to the environment, Chavez said, including installing more solar panels or water catchment systems, buying electric vehicles and busses and retrofitting structures across the district with LED lighting. State rebates or other funding would encourage schools across the state to make these and other eco-friendly changes.

The Santa Fe school board also plans to support gun violence prevention legislation, in line with a resolution the board passed in August. During Thursday's meeting, district officials re-upped their support for creating a statewide office for gun violence prevention; increasing age requirements for the purchase of certain rifles; banning assault-style weapons; and implementing a Child Access Prevention law to criminalize storing weapons in locations where children might access them.

The district is also investigating locations where guns are sold within one mile of schools, Chavez said, to better understand the relationship between nearby gun sales and gun violence among youth.

Board members also plan to seek state funding to limit the impact of soon-to-disappear federal money for certain school programs.

District officials are preparing for the end of Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund dollars, federal funds provided to schools to address the impact of COVID-19, Chavez said. The federal support is set to stop in 2024.

About $1.4 million in federal relief dollars supports the district's early childhood center, a program with 11 full-time employees. The district's work-based learning program — and its work-based learning coordinator position — are also financed using Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund dollars.

"We know the cliff is coming; it's about a year-and-a-half away," Chavez said before the board. "We are hoping that the state looks at all the great initiatives that we've implemented by using it and provides state funding for it."

Board members were in favor of state funding replacing the federal money, to ensure the continuation of programs implemented since the beginning of the pandemic.

Finally, the board discussed requesting state funds or other support for affordable housing solutions during the legislative session.

Ensuring Santa Fe public school employees are able to live where they work is essential for recruiting and retaining new teachers and staff, said board President Kate Noble, particularly as many workers prepare to retire.

"We have an ecosystem that needs some support for recruitment and retention. We have an incredible workforce, but we may be on the leading edge of retirees in our workforce," Noble said. "We can lead the way again, hopefully, in being able to keep our staffing levels where they need to be."

No matter the Legislature's decisions on some of the policies supported by the Santa Fe school board, Chavez anticipates the 2023 session will be big for schools.

"I think it's important to watch this upcoming session. There are going to be a lot of bills around education," Chavez said.