A New Mexico judge has halted the state’s mandate for school districts to adopt calendars with more school days

A new mandate requiring school districts across New Mexico to adopt calendars consisting of at least 180 days was put on hold Monday by a judge while he reviews the legality of the change.

Dozens of school districts and superintendents have challenged the state Department of Public Instruction over the change. Teachers unions and Republican lawmakers have also expressed concerns about the rule.

In granting the school districts’ request for a preliminary injunction, Judge Dustin Hunter said the rule undermines the intent of the Legislature when it passed legislation in 2023 calling for expanding the number of hours children spend in the classroom and of the time teachers have for professional development.

“If the Legislature had intended to expand the number of days with all the associated costs — like transportation and food and specialty providers like special education and everything else — it would necessarily have provided the funding or provided clear guidance as to why this was so. That’s not possible,” Hunter said.

The plaintiffs had argued that the requirement would lead to budget shortfalls, especially for districts that have had four-day work weeks for decades.

“There are 89 different stories in 89 different districts and 89 different ways to educate children,” testified Stan Rounds, executive director of the New Mexico Coalition of Education Leaders. “They are very different. One size does not fit all.”

State officials argue the change will ultimately improve educational outcomes.

Holly Agajanian, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s chief general counsel, argued that school districts would not be harmed if the state were allowed to move forward with implementing the mandate pending a ruling on the merits of the case.

She said districts can submit budgets with two alternative calendars — one that meets the 180-day rule and one that assumes the school won’t have to meet the mandate if the districts win their case.

Agajanian told the court that while substantial comments have been made about the rule, the court “should not consider it the opinion of the public, especially when weighing damages.”

Attorneys for the school districts said 98% of thousands of public comments were against the rule.

Hunter acknowledged that the state has created a Catch-22, requiring districts to submit budgets and schedules and apply for waivers even if they do not have the student performance data needed to determine whether they are in qualify for an exemption.

The courtroom in Roswell was packed Monday and dozens of school officials, lawmakers and prosecutors watched the livestream.

Consideration of the 180-day rule began last year and aroused much opposition. It wasn’t until this year’s legislative session concluded that the Department of Public Instruction announced it would implement the rule, which would take effect July 1.

Public Instruction Secretary Arsenio Romero told reporters in March that the change was just one of several things his agency was making in its quest to move New Mexico from the bottom of the national education rankings. He pointed to structured literacy programs in kindergarten and primary grades, technical education and internship opportunities for older students and summer programs that can help keep students on track.

Romero had said the agency listened to those who spoke out during a public comment period and built in flexibility to allow for four-day weeks — as long as districts could show an increase in academic performance.

In terms of legislation passed in 2023, New Mexico increased the number of hours students needed to attend school from about 1,000 hours to 1,140 hours. The change meant several districts across the state had to extend the school day or add more days to meet the requirement. The legislation also provided scope for professional development for teachers within a normal school day.

In the community of Logan, Superintendent Dennis Roch testified that the new rule will result in “astronomical” costs for the small district to add 33 days to its calendar to comply with the rules. He said the additional cost for teacher salaries, excluding support staff, would be about $388,000 — which is more than what the district pays to heat, cool and power its buildings.

“It’s just unworkable,” he said of absorbing the costs.