NM budget doesn’t include money for cleaning air in schools

Public School Ventilation Act not happening this session

By: - February 17, 2023 4:01 am
Three people stand behind a podium in a government meeting room. News media microphones sit all over the podium, stretching up to hear them speak.

“There are urgent needs now, and we simply cannot ignore those urgent needs now,” said House Appropriations and Finance Committee Chair Rep. Nathan Small (D-Las Cruces) at a new conference on Thursday morning. (Photo by Austin Fisher / Source NM)

The state budget passed by the New Mexico House of Representatives on Thursday includes $8.6 billion for education. It contains precisely zero money for public schools to upgrade their heating and air conditioning systems to clean indoor air well enough to remove coronavirus and other airborne harms.

COVID-19 continues to kill more than 450 people per day in the U.S. Over 94% of Americans live in areas with substantial or higher transmission rates, driving the evolution of new variants of SARS-CoV-2.

Aside from COVID’s direct medical harms, the disease also disproportionately affects New Mexican children. A study published last year found that New Mexico had the third highest rate of caregiver loss to COVID in the entire country, and that Native American children in the state lost caregivers to COVID at a rate 10 times higher than white children.

Rather than taking on the issue in this year’s budget, lawmakers have decided to try and study it further, putting school renovation to meet clean air standards off for another year. 

After three hours of debate on Thursday afternoon, the House voted 52-17 to approve the budget, with nine Republicans voting for it. The budget totals $9.44 billion, which is 12% larger than last year.

Overall, the budget gives more money to public schools, including a 5% raise for teachers, and many other investments across early childhood education, improved instruction, higher education, and career and technical education.

House Appropriations and Finance Committee Vice Chair Rep. Meredith Dixon (D-Albuquerque) said in a news conference on Thursday morning that the budget makes “responsible investments that reflect our values.”


Every child has a right to quality education, and ideally a safe, happy and healthy upbringing, said Committee Member Rep. Joy Garratt (D-Albuquerque).

“By investing in our schools and the well being of our children,” Garratt said. “We want to make New Mexico one of the best places to grow up in this entire country, regardless of background, economic status, location or anything else.”

The budget does set aside $300 million for extended learning, including embedded professional work time for teachers, which Garratt said “will help us address learning loss due to the COVID pandemic.”

New Mexico students don’t have ‘learning loss.’ They’re living in a pandemic.

But education and child health experts have said when school buildings aren’t prepared to handle airborne viruses, students, teachers and support staff are more likely to get sick, which leads to worse educational outcomes.

“Kids who are experiencing all of these inequalities before the pandemic, that just become exacerbated by our collective refusal to deal with the root problem: clean air for us to breathe when we’re indoors,” said Dr. Margaret Thornton, visiting assistant professor at Old Dominion University in Virginia who studies educational leadership and policy.

COVID did come up briefly in the budget debate on the House floor, but only as a way for Rep. Larry Scott (R-Hobbs) to claim that the pandemic is over and argue that public schools should be defunded.

Scott said while public schools have received significant funding increases over the last six years, the state remains “mired at last or dead last in national rankings with our public education system.”

“Before we blame COVID, we should realize that all 50 states were affected by COVID, our last place ranking was present before COVID, during COVID, and now after COVID,” Scott said. “Perhaps it’s time to rethink that additional funding may not be the answer.”

New Mexico requires public schools to upgrade heating and air conditioning systems to make schools healthier, however state education officials have not done any systematic review to determine if schools are following the requirements.

We have the tools to pull COVID out of the air in NM schools, but are we using them?

Garratt and Rep. Christine Chandler (D-Los Alamos) acknowledged the need to make air in public schools more healthy. They introduced a bill this session which would have required an assessment of all ventilation systems in all public schools every five years, and for the results to be made public.

However, that bill has sat untouched in the House Education Committee for more than a month.

And on Thursday, Garratt indicated the proposal to create a Public School Ventilation Act won’t be going anywhere during this 60-day session.

She and the other sponsors have changed their minds and instead are pursuing House Joint Memorial 7, she said, which would commit lawmakers to studying the issue.

As of Thursday night, the memorial had not been formally introduced. While Thursday was the last day for bills to be filed this session, memorials can still be filed. 

“There’s so many different entities involved that we realized we have to get them all together to study it, and then, in the next legislative session, address it through the budget,” Garratt said.


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Austin Fisher
Austin Fisher

Austin Fisher is a journalist based in Santa Fe. He has worked for newspapers in New Mexico and his home state of Kansas, including the Topeka Capital-Journal, the Garden City Telegram, the Rio Grande SUN and the Santa Fe Reporter. Since starting a full-time career in reporting in 2015, he’s aimed to use journalism to lift up voices that typically go unheard in public debates around economic inequality, policing and environmental racism.