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Local teacher compensation a top priority; Budget requests would mean more than $195K in awards for some RISD teachers

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Large bonuses for teachers rated as exemplary could help retain top performers and improve student outcomes, says Education Secretary-Designate Christopher Ruszkowski. He is shown in a photo taken about a year ago with Pauline Sanchez, winner of the 2016 New Mexico True Reading Challenge. (Submitted Photo)

Better pay for public school teachers and more than $195,000 in bonuses for local top performers have been chalked into the New Mexico Public Education Department budget request before legislators.

“Our No. 1 priority of the budget is teacher compensation,” said Education Department Secretary-Designate Christopher Ruszkowski, “both a 2 percent across-the-board pay increase for all teachers and also the exemplary teaching awards that would recognize, reward and retain some of Roswell’s and New Mexico’s best teachers.”

Ruszkowski explained that the exemplary teaching awards would pay up to $10,000 bonuses to math and science teachers rated as exemplary on their evaluations and $5,000 bonuses to top-rated teachers in other disciplines.

Teachers who earn exemplary performance ratings, he explained, have students who have shown gains of 25 months of learning during a single academic year. Those rated effective have students showing about a year’s worth of growth, while ineffective teachers have students with little to no gains during the year.

Keeping top-performing teachers in classrooms, especially in difficult-to-fill positions in the math and sciences, is key to good student outcomes, Ruszkowski contends.

“Roswell has been a district and community that has put systems and structures in place to reward and recognize and celebrate its most outstanding teachers over the last five years,” he said. “And so the exemplary teaching awards are going to continue to recognize and reward teachers, not only in Roswell, but across the state.”

According to data released in September, 4.5 percent of the state’s K-12 public school teachers, a total of 956 educators, earned the top rating in 2017.

For the Roswell Independent School District, 39 out of 601 teachers, 6.49 percent, were evaluated as exemplary by the NMTeach Educator Effectiveness System. Evaluation results for smaller school districts were not released to protect teacher privacy.

Using those numbers, RISD would be distributing at least $195,000 in bonuses should the funding be approved by the New Mexico Legislature, while districts statewide would be handing out at least $4.78 million in performance rewards.

Teacher grades are based on five factors for most teachers, with new teachers judged by slightly different criteria. Student achievement, as measured by scores on standardized tests, count for 35 percent of the evaluation. Principal observation of classroom instruction is 40 percent. Professionalism and planning and preparation, as judged by administrators, make up 15 percent. Teacher attendance and results of parent and student surveys count for 5 percent each.

Because of the emphasis on student assessments, a weight that has decreased in recent years in response to educators’ feedback, some professional associations in the state have called the evaluation system seriously flawed.

Ruszkowski has defended the evaluations in the past saying they offer the best data-driven way to judge teacher abilities and are intended to help educators understand where and how they can improve.

In the recent interview, he stressed that the education department and school districts have programs in place — including mentorship programs, Teacher Leader networks and about $18 million for professional development — to bring more teachers up to the top levels.

The 2 percent pay increase proposed would mean local teachers could see about $800 to $1,300 more a year in salary.

According to a 2016-2017 salary schedule on the Roswell Independent School District website, starting pay for a teacher with a bachelor’s degree was $36,533 a year last academic year. The highest level of teacher salary was about $65,000 a year.

According to House Bill 2, the Public Education Department has requested $2.66 billion from the state general fund, an amount about equal to the prior fiscal year’s funding.

The department also has asked for another $25 million in other state funds and $443.48 million in federal funds.

House Bill 2 is now in the House Appropriations and Finance Committee. Funding requests must pass the House and Senate and be signed by the governor before they are approved.

Senior Writer Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 310, or at reporter02@rdrnews.com.