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New Mexico school funding goes on trial

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SANTA FE, N.M. — A lawsuit that could upend the way New Mexico’s public schools are funded went to trial Monday to resolve accusations that the state is failing to meet constitutional obligations to provide essential educational opportunities to all students.

Parents, school districts and advocacy groups say that New Mexico’s education system isn’t meeting its responsibilities for Native American students, low-income students and those learning English as a second language.

“These failings are costing students the opportunity to succeed,” said Marisa Bono, a lead attorney for the plaintiffs, in opening statements to the court. “The state is pumping hundreds of thousands of students into the state economy who are wholly unprepared for college or career.”

Education officials under Republican Gov. Susana Martinez say spending is more than adequate, and that the state has added specialized programs to help struggling students while holding teachers and school leaders more accountable for students’ academic progress.

In opening statements Monday, an attorney for the state said high levels of poverty across New Mexico have a major impact on the results of student testing — something that won’t be addressed by funneling more money toward public schools.

“The evidence will show that additional spending will have virtually no effect on student test scores,” attorney Jeff Wechsler said. “The defendants cannot show that spending more will impact them in any meaningful way.”

Courts in several states are being called upon to shore up funding for public schools, amid frustration with elected officials over state budget priorities and the quality of education.

The plaintiffs called on Santa Fe Public Schools Superintendent Veronica Garcia — a former state public education secretary — to testify about what she described as shockingly low levels of proficiency in math and reading among graduating students.

Garcia noted that many schools are not included in new programs that intercede at an early age by expanding pre-school to 4-year-olds and lengthening the school day and school year through third grade. She faulted the overall level of state funding for public schools, as well as limited funds for programs tailored toward the students from low-income households where English is not the primary language.

The New Mexico case merges two lawsuits brought against the state on behalf of parents of public school students, from metropolitan Albuquerque to rural Zuni Pueblo, with seven school districts also joining the lawsuit. They were being represented by attorneys with the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

The plaintiffs argue that New Mexico does not equitably provide enough funding or enrichment opportunities to all students, despite constitutional guarantees to a free, uniform and sufficient public school system for all school-age children. Attorneys assembled state testing data to show that the majority of Native American students fail to meet grade-level proficiency in math and reading.

In a pre-trial ruling, Judge Sarah Singleton said the plaintiffs will have to do more than showcase abysmal test scores to prove that the state is violating constitutional guarantees to sufficient funding.

Plaintiffs of the lawsuit say public schools are underfunded by hundreds of millions of dollars each year. As they struggle with some of the nation’s highest childhood poverty rates, New Mexico’s school districts rely mostly on state funding for educational programs with some federal aid.

The lawsuit threatened to wrest control of public school funding away from the Legislature and New Mexico Public Education Department, over objections from fiscally conservative lawmakers and the governor.

Criticism of New Mexico’s education system has spanned the tenures of governors from both sides of the political aisle.

A state budget crisis has added a sense of urgency to the trial, as New Mexico grapples with a weak local economy and waning income from oil and natural gas.

To close a budget deficit for the budget year ending June 30, state spending on school programs was trimmed by 1.5 percent, with additional reductions to district cash balances and funding for transportation and instructional materials.

In Oklahoma, another energy-dependent state, budget cuts have prompted nearly 100 school districts to move to a four-day school week.

Lawmakers in Washington state have been struggling this year to satisfy a 2012 Supreme Court order to put more money toward basic education. In Arizona, a group of school districts and education associations sued the state in May, saying the Legislature has short-changed them by billions of dollars in required infrastructure spending during the past decade.

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More than just pie, the Pecan industry sets sights on snacks

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The humble pecan is being rebranded as more than just pie.

Pecan growers and suppliers are hoping to sell U.S. consumers on the virtues of North America’s only native nut as a hedge against a potential trade war with China, the pecan’s largest export market.

The pecan industry is also trying to crack the fast-growing snack-food industry.

The retail value for packaged nuts, seeds and trail mix in the U.S. alone was $5.7 billion in 2012, and is forecast to rise to $7.5 billion by 2022, according to market researcher Euromonitor.

The Fort Worth, Texas-based American Pecan Council, formed in the wake of a new federal marketing order that allows the industry to band together and assess fees for research and promotion, is a half-century in the making, said Jim Anthony, 80, the owner of a 14,000-acre pecan farm near Granbury, Texas.

Anthony said that regional rivalries and turf wars across the 15-state pecan belt — stretching from the Carolinas to California — made such a union impossible until recently, when demand for pecans exploded in Asian markets.

Until 2007, most U.S. pecans were consumed domestically, according to Daniel Zedan, president of Nature’s Finest Foods, a marketing group. By 2009, China was buying about a third of the U.S. crop.

The pecan is the only tree nut indigenous to North America, growers say. Sixteenth-century Spanish explore Cabeza de Vaca wrote about tasting the nut during his encounters with Native American tribes in South Texas. The name is French explorers’ phonetic spelling of the native word “pakan,” meaning hard-shelled nut.

Facing growing competition from pecan producers in South Africa, Mexico and Australia, U.S. producers are also riding the wave of the Trump Administration’s policies to promote American-made goods.

Most American kids grow up with peanut butter but peanuts probably originated in South America. Almonds are native to Asia and pistachios to the Middle East. The pecan council is funding academic research to show that their nuts are just as nutritious.

The council on Wednesday will debut a new logo: “American Pecans: The Original Supernut.”

Rodney Myers, who manages operations at Anthony’s pecan farm, credits the pecan’s growing cachet in China and elsewhere in Asia with its association to rustic Americana — “the oilfield, cowboys, the Wild West — they associate all these things with the North American nut,” he said.

China earlier this month released a list of American products that could face tariffs in retaliation for proposed U.S. tariffs on $50 billion worth of Chinese goods. Fresh and dried nuts — including the pecan — could be slapped with a 15-percent tariff, according to the list. To counter that risk, the pecan council is using some of the $8 million in production-based assessments it’s collected since the marketing order was passed to promote the versatility of the tree nut beyond pecan pie at Thanksgiving.

While Chinese demand pushed up prices it also drove away American consumers. By January 2013, prices had dropped 50 percent from their peak in 2011, according to Zedan.

U.S. growers and processers were finally able in 2016 to pass a marketing order to better control pecan production and prices.

Authorized by the Agricultural Marketing Agreement Act of 1937, federal marketing orders help producers and handlers standardize packaging, impose quality control and fund research, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees 28 other fruit, vegetable and specialty marketing orders, in addition to the pecan order.

Critics charge that the orders interfere with the price signals of a free, unfettered private market.

“What you’ve created instead is a government-sanctioned cartel,” said Daren Bakst, an agricultural policy researcher at the conservative Heritage Foundation.

Before the almond industry passed its own federal marketing order in 1950, fewer almonds than pecans were sold, according to pecan council chair Mike Adams, who cultivates 600 acres of pecan trees near Caldwell, Texas. Now, while almonds appear in everything from cereal to milk substitutes, Adams calls the pecan “the forgotten nut.”

“We’re so excited to have an identity, to break out of the pie shell,” said Molly Willis, a member of the council who owns an 80-acre pecan farm in Albany, Georgia, a supplement to her husband’s family’s peanut-processing business.

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Navajo Nation marks 150th anniversary of return to homeland

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A long-lost original copy of a historic treaty signed in 1868 by leaders of one of the nation’s largest American Indian tribes and the U.S. government will go on display later this year as the Navajo Nation commemorates a dark, but significant chapter of history.

Navajo Vice President Jonathan Nez and other tribal officials gathered Tuesday in Albuquerque to detail some of the events that will mark the signing of the treaty 150 years ago.

That treaty is what cleared the way for tribal members to return to their homeland in the heart of the American Southwest after being rounded up years earlier by the U.S. cavalry and forced to make an arduous and deadly trek hundreds of miles to a camp in eastern New Mexico.

Nez recounted the hardships of what came to be known as the Long Walk, saying many Navajos died along the route to Bosque Redondo. He also talked about those who stayed behind and hid in canyons and on mesa tops, often foregoing the warmth of a fire to avoid capture.

“We want our younger generation to know about our history,” Nez told a room packed with tribal officials and reporters.

He also talked about problems facing tribal communities, from suicide to alcoholism, drug addiction and violence. He said he wants to tap into the resilience of those Navajo ancestors who endured the hardships of the 1800s.

“What this will do is inspire, encourage our people out there that they can’t give up, to jump back up, dust themselves off and to fight even harder than ever before for what they believe in,” Nez said.

Navajo President Russell Begaye has said this year’s commemoration is also about telling the story of the Long Walk, the signing of the treaty and the return home from the perspective of Native Americans. He and other tribal officials say one goal is to address what they called a “legacy of misrepresentation” that has stemmed from that era.

Before research and planning began for this year’s events, there were only two known copies of the historic treaty. The whereabouts of one is now a mystery and the other has been kept by the National Archives and Records Administration.

The third copy turned up only recently when the relatives of a peace commissioner who was involved in the negotiation and signing of the treaty in 1868 found the document in a trunk in the family attic.

It was rolled up and bound with the original but faded ribbon. It was in pristine condition along with notes and other documents that historians hope might fill in some of the blanks from that time.

Pages of that copy will be on display starting in June at the Bosque Redondo Memorial near Fort Sumner, New Mexico.

The National Archives is partnering with the Navajo Nation to display the other original copy at the Navajo Nation Museum in Window Rock, Arizona, for the month of June.

It took more than two years of planning to make the exhibition possible as this marks only the second time an original treaty has gone back to a homeland.

Museum director Manny Wheeler said the treaty is more than just a document to the Navajo people.

“When I saw the document and I saw the marks of all of our leaders on that paper, it is a powerful thing and it is very much so opening up dialogue among all Navajos about who we are, where we’ve come from and where we’re going,” Wheeler said.

Wheeler suggested that as much as the document was key to the Navajos’ past, it also has the power to change the future by awaking tribal members to the importance of preserving their culture and language.

The leaders of the Navajo Nation’s three branches of government signed a proclamation earlier this year declaring 2018 as the year of the treaty, and the tribe launched a website .

The commemoration also includes a day of prayer across the Navajo Nation, cultural nights, tours of the tribal council chambers and a run that will span more than 400 miles (644 kilometers) from Fort Sumner to the Navajo capital.

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Push to legalize marijuana upends governor’s race in New Mexico

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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jeff Apodaca on Thursday called for the expansion of New Mexico’s medical marijuana program and for legalization of recreational use, saying the poverty-stricken state is missing out on millions of dollars in tax revenues and jobs that could be spurred by the industry.

Apodaca released his plan solidifying his position as a supporter of legalization as the race for governor heats up.

Apodaca pointed to New Mexico’s history as the first state to allow for research and experimentation with marijuana as a therapeutic drug. It was his father, then-Gov. Jerry Apodaca, who signed that legislation in 1978.

The research program stalled and it wasn’t until 2008 that New Mexico rolled out its medical cannabis program.

“Why are we shooting for being the last to legalize cannabis for adult use?” Apodaca said.

The push for legalization comes as New Mexico’s medical marijuana program has grown exponentially in just the last two years. Producers licensed under the program reported record sales of more than $86 million in 2017 and the number of patients enrolled now tops 50,000.

“We know the medical benefits of it. And we also know the opportunities of legalization for adult use,” Apodaca said, suggesting expansion of the long-standing medical marijuana program along with legalization could result in an estimated $200 million of additional tax revenues for the state.

The state’s largest producer, Ultra Health, announced that it has acquired farmland in southern New Mexico and has plans for what the industry says could be the largest cultivation facility in North America.

The property spans nearly one-third of a square mile (81 hectares) in Otero County. It will include 20 acres (8 hectares) of indoor cultivation, 80 acres (32 hectares) of outdoor cannabis fields and another 100 acres (40 hectares) of outdoor hemp fields.

Ultra Health president and CEO Duke Rodriguez said the company is preparing for a future in which New Mexico stands to benefit from expanded medical use and possibly recreational use.

Apodaca’s plan calls for lifting the current limits on the number of plants producers can grow and reducing costly licensing fees.

Other Democratic candidates have been more cautious.

U.S. Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham said she would work with state lawmakers to ensure there are adequate health, safety and enforcement measures in place. She called for a “thorough analysis” of recreational pot programs in other states as part of that effort.

Lujan Grisham was in charge of the state Health Department when the medical marijuana program began. Aside from the legalization debate, she said supporting producers to create the latest medicines and methods to help patients would help create jobs and expand the industry.

State Sen. Joseph Cervantes, another Democratic candidate, has sponsored unsuccessful legislation to decriminalize possession of small quantities of pot but has said the state is lacking infrastructure and isn’t ready yet to legalize.

Cervantes recently lauded efforts at the local level by the state’s largest city — Albuquerque — to decriminalize possession of small amounts. He said he would do the same as governor and that it would mark a first step.

Republican congressman and gubernatorial candidate Steve Pearce expressed reservations about legalization at a forum earlier this month. He said it might create a stumbling block for people trying to climb out of poverty and addiction to other drugs.

“I just don’t see how it fits that we’re going to deal with addiction and yet we’re going to tell people, ‘This one is OK.’ I’ve watched it for a lifetime. I just am very nervous with recreational marijuana,” he said.

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