Court issues final ruling in landmark education lawsuit

Legislature’s proposed funding will not meet court’s mandate for transformation of education system

ALBUQUERQUE—Late Thursday, First Judicial District Court Judge Sarah Singleton issued a final ruling in Yazzie/Martinez v. State of New Mexico. The court found that the state has violated students’ constitutional rights to a sufficient education and ordered the state to provide educational programs, services, and funding to schools to prepare students so they are college and career ready.

The current proposed funding for education under discussion in the New Mexico Legislature will not suffice to meet the court’s mandate.

Current New Mexico Legislature education funding proposals are asking for an increase of $400 to $500 million—which amounts to a 15-18 percent increase in public school funding. Evidence at trial showed that public schools are receiving less funding now than in 2008, when adjusting for inflation. That data has since been updated to show that an increase of $409 million would only return New Mexico to 2008 education funding levels. In 2008, New Mexico was ranked at the bottom in the country in reading and math proficiency and was clearly not in compliance with New Mexico’s constitutional requirement. Reverting funding back to 2008 resources levels does not meet the court’s mandates to sufficiently fund programs and services for our children

“New Mexico’s students are legally entitled to the educational opportunities they need to succeed. This final judgement is yet another clear statement from the court that the state has a legal mandate to take immediate action to ensure that our students are getting the quality of education that they are constitutionally entitled to,” said Gail Evans, lead attorney for Yazzie plaintiffs in the Yazzie/Martinez v. State of New Mexico lawsuit. “To comply with the constitution, we must have a transformation of our educational system—nothing less is going to cut it. The system has failed our students for decades and that must stop now.”

The court made clear that students’ constitutional rights to a sufficient education cannot be violated so that the state can save funds. The court’s final judgement states, “The defendants must comply with their duty to provide an adequate education and may not conserve financial resources at the expense of our constitutional resources.”

The legislature’s current budget under consideration does not fully implement a multicultural and bilingual curriculum, does not adequately increase teacher pay and professional development to recruit and retain teachers, and does not ensure children have access to instructional materials, technology and transportation, and other basic services that are critical for educational success.

“Families and school districts have been struggling to work with the resources that they have,” said Tom Sullivan, former superintendent of Moriarty-Edgewood School District, which is a plaintiff in the Yazzie/Martinez lawsuit. “Most states’ education budgets have recovered from and surpassed pre-recession amounts, but in New Mexico, the current budget proposal is barely returning to 2008 levels when education was already underfunded.”

“We have an incredible opportunity to do the right thing for our students, our future,” said Mike Grossman, superintendent of Lake Arthur Municipal Schools, one of the smallest districts in New Mexico and a Yazzie plaintiff. “Governor Lujan-Grisham and new Public Education Department have expressed a strong commitment to our students and to public education. It is critical that they now step in and drive the major educational reforms and the big investments it will take to fix our schools.”

The court’s final judgement and order can be found here: http://nmpovertylaw.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/D-101-CV-2014-00793-Final-Judgment-and-Order-NCJ-1.pdf

Court order supports call to transform New Mexico’s school system

New court document explains precisely how state is not meeting constitutional requirements for a sufficient education

ALBUQUERQUE—Judge Sarah Singleton’s most recent order in Yazzie/Martinez v. State of New Mexico makes clear that the court expects a major overhaul of the state’s public school system to bring it into compliance with the constitution and other state laws.

The extensive 600-page “findings of fact and conclusions of law” describes in great detail the need for a multicultural education framework, improved bilingual and English language learner programming, universal and quality full-day pre-kindergarten, sufficient access to extended learning opportunities like summer school and after school programming, social services, smaller class sizes, and increased teacher pay and support to recruit and retain high-quality educators.  

“The court’s ruling couldn’t be more clear: the programs and services that work must be made available immediately to all children, not just some children,” said Gail Evans, lead counsel for the Yazzie plaintiffs for the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty. “The state has failed a generation of children but now has a historic opportunity, and a legal obligation, to rise to the occasion and provide our children the educational opportunities they need to succeed. No more excuses. No more nickel and diming our kids. The time to fix our schools is now.”

The court’s order mandates that the state take immediate steps, by April 15, 2019, to ensure New Mexico’s schools have the resources necessary to prepare students for college and career.

“I just want what every parent wants, for my children to graduate ready to pursue their dreams. Every New Mexican child deserves that,” said Wilhelmina Yazzie, the lead plaintiff in Yazzie v. State of New Mexico. “My son’s school in Gallup doesn’t have enough resources to provide basic materials for all the students, much less offer the culturally relevant programs he needs. Our children are important, and they are just as capable as any other children in the nation. It’s time for New Mexico to truly transform our public education system – small fixes just don’t cut it.”

The judge’s order provides legal backing to the Transform Education NM platform: a blueprint for action, supported by research and evidence at trial, that sets forth the initial necessary steps to bring the state’s education system into compliance with the constitution. The platform was developed by hundreds of educational leaders, families, tribal leaders, and the lawsuit plaintiffs.

“Our recommendations for overhauling our school system don’t just constitute a nice wish-list but are requirements to meet the basic needs of our students,” said Veronica Garcia, superintendent of Santa Fe Public Schools, which is one of the plaintiffs in the Yazzie/Martinez lawsuit. “The law is on the side of students across the state. Policymakers need to pass the education legislation necessary to satisfy the judge’s order. We won’t stop advocating until every child in New Mexico has the educational opportunities they deserve.”

“From students to teachers, from curriculum to funding, from early childhood to graduation, we have the unique opportunity to transform our public education system and do right by our students,” said Adan Delgado, Superintendent of Cuba Independent District, one of the other plaintiffs.

“At-risk and Native American students have been left behind for too long in New Mexico,” said Mike Hyatt, superintendent of Gallup McKinley County Schools, also a plaintiff in the lawsuit. “We look forward to working with legislators and the state to turn around our education system to fulfill its constitutional obligation to meet the needs of all students.”

The judge’s order can be found here: http://nmpovertylaw.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/Courts-Findings-of-Fact-and-Conclusions-of-Law-2018-12-20.pdf

The Transform Education NM platform can be found here: http://nmpovertylaw.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/Transform-Education-NM-Platform-2018-12-11.pdf

A summary of the platform can be found here: http://nmpovertylaw.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/Transform-Education-NM-2-Page-Platform-Summary.pdf

Closing briefs filed in landmark education lawsuit against State of New Mexico

Education lawsuit asserts students’ state constitutional rights are being violated

SANTA FE, NM – Attorneys from the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty (the Center) and MALDEF (Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund) have filed closing briefs for their consolidated lawsuit (Yazzie v. State of New Mexico and Martinez v. State of New Mexico) against the State of New Mexico for its failure to provide all public school students a sufficient education as mandated by the New Mexico Constitution.

The consolidated lawsuits claim the state’s arbitrary and inadequate funding of public schools, and lack of necessary monitoring and oversight deprives children – particularly low-income, Native American and English language learner students, and students with disabilities – of a sufficient education.

Plaintiffs in the suit seek a declaration that the system is unconstitutional and that the system should provide the opportunity for all students to be ready for college and career. The trial for the consolidated lawsuit began on June 12, 2017 and concluded on August 4 after eight weeks of testimony.

The closing brief for Martinez v. New Mexico – filed in April 2014 on behalf of parents and public school children from Española, Santa Fe, Albuquerque, Zuni, Magdalena, Las Cruces and Gadsden – contends that the state is in violation of the Education Clause of the New Mexico Constitution because the state’s education system has failed to provide adequate resources, programs, and oversight for economically disadvantaged students, English language learner (ELL) students, and students with disabilities.

Additionally, the Martinez closing brief asserts that the state’s education system violates the Equal Protection Clause of the New Mexico Constitution by denying equal treatment to economically-disadvantaged and ELL students. For example, these students are generally taught by less experienced and less skilled teachers than other students. The closing brief also claims violation of the Due Process Clause of the New Mexico Constitution because the state’s irrational and unreasonable funding policies prevent students with disabilities, as well as ED and ELL students, from receiving a sufficient education.

“The evidence shows that the state’s failures are not just a matter of money or policy, but that the education system as a whole deprives at-risk students of the opportunity to be ready for college and career,” said Ernest I. Herrera, MALDEF staff attorney.

The closing brief for Yazzie v. State of New Mexico argues the evidence presented in the trial indisputably shows that most New Mexico students are not college, career, and civics ready. A majority of the state’s public school students have not been provided a sufficient education in order to be able to read, write, or do math at grade level, and the state also consistently has one of the lowest high school graduation rates in the country.

“These are not achievement gaps, attributable to shortcomings of our children, families, and educators,” said Gail Evans, legal director of the Center. “These are opportunity gaps attributable to a broken system that does not effectively serve our children.”

The Center asserts that the state fails to provide school districts with enough funding and support. For example, despite evidence that high quality preschool and extended learning opportunities like the K-3 Plus Program successfully closes achievement gaps, only a minority of children have access to those programs. Further, the closing brief claims New Mexico’s public education system is constitutionally insufficient for Native Americans, having failed to satisfy the New Mexico Indian Education Act (2003), which requires the state to provide Native students a culturally-relevant education, and to collaborate with tribes in doing so.

The Yazzie plaintiffs specifically seek an injunction requiring the state to take to take three actions: first, no later than the 2019-2020 school year, to develop a comprehensive plan of programs and services to provide a uniform and sufficient system of public education to all students in New Mexico; second, to provide sufficient increased funding and a revised formula for distributing funds to the public school districts; and lastly, to establish an effective system of accountability and enforcement to ensure that every child in New Mexico is receiving a sufficient education.

The state sought to dismiss the lawsuits, but the court in Martinez denied the request and ruled for the first time in New Mexico’s history that education is a fundamental right. The court consolidated the two cases in 2015.

State District Court Judge Sarah Singleton is expected to make a declaration this spring.

Lawsuit Alleging DWS Fails to Enforce Wage Protection Laws Goes Forward

SANTA FE – Today, New Mexico’s First Judicial Court ruled that a lawsuit charging that Department of Workforce Solutions (DWS) must enforce state laws protecting working people against wage theft from their employers can go forward. Today’s ruling denies DWS’s request to dismiss the lawsuit. The individuals and groups who filed the case will request a final ruling from the court this summer.

Wage theft is the illegal practice of not paying workers for all of their work, including violating minimum wage laws, not paying overtime, and forcing people to work off the clock.

The lawsuit, Olivas v. Bussey, was filed in January 2017 by four workers who were victims of wage theft and workers’ rights organizations El Centro de Igualdad y Derechos, New Mexico Comunidades en Accion y de Fé (CAFÉ), Organizers in the Land of Enchantment (OLÉ), and Somos Un Pueblo Unido. Elizabeth Wagoner of the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty (the Center) is lead counsel on a legal team that includes the Center’s Gail Evans and Tim Davis, Santa Fe attorney Daniel Yohalem, and Gabriela Ibañez Guzmán of Somos Un Pueblo Unido.

“Our government should be working with us, not against us, to hold unscrupulous employers accountable when wages are stolen and our rights trampled on,” said Ibañez Guzmán. “This administration has long ignored the conditions of struggling workers in New Mexico, but our families are pushing back. It’s important that this case is moving forward so wage theft victims can be heard and the department’s disregard for the law exposed.”

“This ruling reaffirms that every hard working New Mexican – not just those with the money to hire lawyers–deserves to be paid for every hour they work,” said Wagoner. “Our state government cannot turn a blind eye when employers break laws protecting working people.”

New Mexico has some of the strongest wage enforcement laws in the country. In 2009, the legislature made them even stronger. However, DWS illegally refused to enforce these new laws and imposed onerous and arbitrary internal policies that have enabled unscrupulous employers to get away with wage theft unchecked.

“DWS’s failure to enforce New Mexico’s wage and hour laws is one more example of how hard working New Mexicans are getting the short end of the stick in our state—but they are fighting back. This case is too important to dismiss, particularly given the profound impact wage theft has on New Mexican working families. We applaud the ruling and look forward to continuing to expose systemic failures by DWS to enforce New Mexico wage and hour laws, “said Marco Nuñez, workers’ justice coordinator at El CENTRO de Igualdad y Derechos.

A copy of the ruling can be found here.

 Background on the lawsuit:

New Mexico’s state-level protections against wage theft include: (1) Mandatory statutory damages to victims of wage theft, calculated as full back wages, plus interest, plus double damages; (2) At least a three-year statute of limitations, or longer when the violation is part of a “continuing course of conduct”; (3) A minimum wage of $7.50 and overtime pay for hours over 40 at one-and-one-half times the employee’s regular hourly rate; (4) the department must investigate and take legal action on valid and enforceable claims filed by workers who cannot afford private attorneys.

The lawsuit charges that DWS has:

▪       illegally imposed a $10,000 cap on wage theft: they do not investigate or take any enforcement action on wage claims worth $10,000 or more.

▪       imposed an illegal one-year time limit on liability for wage theft: they do not investigate or take any enforcement action on claims for back pay that go back more than one year from the date an employee files a claim, despite the N.M. Legislature’s 2009 decision to lengthen the statute of limitations for wage claims to at least three years.

▪       illegally imposed a policy against holding employers liable for any statutory damages at the administrative enforcement phase of a case, thereby eliminating the financial deterrent for engaging in wage theft, despite the Legislature’s 2009 decision to double the penalty for engaging in wage theft.

▪       adopted policies and procedures that require the permanent closure of wage claims for procedural reasons, such as when a claimant misses a 10-day deadline, without regard to the strength of the claim or whether the claimant received notice of the deadline.

The lawsuit seeks an order that the Department of Workforce Solutions must stop applying these unlawful policies, as well as an order that the Department must re-open and investigate cases impacted by these policies.

The defendants in the lawsuit are the Department of Workforce Solutions, Cabinet Secretary Celina Bussey, and Labor Relations Division Director Jason Dean.

In January, 2017, the First Judicial District Court issued a temporary restraining order requiring the Department of Workforce Solutions to accept wage claims without regard to the Department’s illegal $10,000 cap or illegal one-year lookback period and to keep records of claims impacted by these policies.

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Important Players Honored at the Center’s 20th Anniversary Celebration

As part of our joyful 20th Anniversary Celebration on April 14, 2016, we recognized some of the individuals who have played indispensable roles in the establishment and success of the Center.

The Center’s First Executive Director

thumb resized Bob EricsonBob Ericson, the first Executive Director the Center. Bob was a lifetime legal service attorney and is remembered as a meticulous, skilled, and compassionate attorney. His legal skills and leadership influenced the Center on Law and Poverty’s culture of excellent work, integrity, and service to low-income New Mexicans—values we still hold strong today. He touched the lives of so many people in New Mexico.

The Extraordinary Members of the Founding Board of Directors

thumb resized Ruth KovnatRuth Kovnat, Emerita Professor of Law at University of New Mexico School of Law. Ruth served as President of our Board of Directors. If you practice law in New Mexico, there’s a good chance you either learned from Ruth or learned from someone who learned from her. Ruth has been an ongoing supporter of the Center and equal access to justice for the poor.

THUMB resized Tim Sheehan 2010Timothy Sheehan, retired attorney from the firm of Sheehan and Sheehan, PA. Tim served as Secretary and Treasurer of our Board. He has worked extensively at state and national levels to promote and fund legal services for the poor.



thumb resized Bill StrouseBill Strouse, former Executive Director of Legal Aid in Southern New Mexico, the Community Action Agency of Southern New Mexico, and the statewide, consolidated New Mexico Legal Aid. He helped build each of those organizations substantially. Bill served as Vice President of the Center’s Board.

THUMB resized Virginia SearsVirginia Sears (1915-2001), legal services consultant with the New Mexico State Bar Association and Northern New Mexico Legal Services. Virginia was a wonderful lifelong senior advocate and activist.



thumb resized John RobbJohn Robb (1924-2014), partner at the firm of Rodey, Dickason, Sloan, Akin & Robb, PA. John, who was the first President of our Board of Directors, demonstrated a powerful commitment to civil legal aid for the poor. In addition to serving on the Center’s board for over a decade, he also participated on the boards of the National Legal Aid and Defender Association and the ABA’s Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defendants. Click below to hear John’s thoughts about the NM Center on Law and Poverty.

A Few Key Staff Members

Nancy Koenigsberg, current Senior Attorney at Disability Rights New Mexico. Nancy led the Center as Legal Director and Acting Executive Director for five years. She made sure the Center maintained its commitment to excellent work and service following Bob Ericson’s passing.

Sireesha Manne, Staff Attorney. Sireesha has been a leader in the Center’s healthcare advocacy and critical to the Center’s success in policy work in the legislature and executive branch.

Gail Evans, Legal Director. Gail is widely regarded as one of the best poverty law attorneys in the country. Both the excellence of the Center’s advocacy and its enviable string of successes in the courts are testament to that. She has been a persistent, unflagging voice for low-income New Mexicans.

Stacey Leaman, Development Director. Stacey’s fundraising efforts have allowed the Center to add staff, diversify our campaigns, and make a broader impact.

Kim Posich, the Center’s Executive Director. Since becoming Executive Director in October 2002, Kim has expanded the Center’s size, resources, and advocacy agenda. Under his leadership, the Center went from a team of 3 to today being a staff of 15—including a remarkable 11 attorneys! This has corresponded with an expansion of the Center’s work. Kim has dedicated his entire life to working on behalf of those with fewer resources, less privilege, and greater need. He has tirelessly championed the poor, making an enormous and measurable difference for thousands of families in this state.