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Cedar Attanasio
Associated Press / Report for America

SANTA FE, N.M. — Tribal leaders on Monday welcomed Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham's signature of a bill that will increase funding for schools serving Native American and military communities across New Mexico. 

"This change is going to be a generational change," Zuni Pueblo Gov. Val Panteah said during a signing ceremony outside the state capitol, where he addressed Democratic leaders who passed the bill during this year's legislative session. "I thank you on behalf of Zuni people, and Zuni kids."

The law eliminates a state credit that deducted 75 percent of federal funding from state funding that schools received to compensate them for serving communities with large tracts of federal land.

The struggle to eliminate the credit for the federal funds, known as Impact Aid, was felt for decades across the state's nearly two dozen tribal nations. It led to a federal court ruling against the state's funding formula last year.

State leaders, in turn, thanked tribal leaders for pressuring them to change the system.

"I want to thank the people who have literally fought for their entire careers to make this happen," Lujan Grisham said.

Zuni school board member Anthony Lucio said it was a lawsuit filed by his community that made it happen. He served as staff to the tribal government when the legal challenge began 1998. "I'm thankful to all of the Zuni people and to our ancestral spirits," he said.

School districts cannot tax tribal reservations, military bases or other federal property. Instead, the federal government funds schools at a fixed rate. That means that, unlike other schools, they can't ask voters to raise taxes to increase school funding.

The bill also eliminated credits taken from districts that do raise local taxes, leading to concern during the session that the equalization funding policies that have guided school funding since the 1970s may be undone, and inequality between districts could increase. 

Both sides of the funding feud celebrated a resolution through state lawmaking instead of federal court. 

House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, thanked tribal leaders for "grabbing me by the lapels" to pass the new law. 

Lujan Grisham also celebrated the reopening of many schools Monday and credited the strict pandemic lockdowns on tribal lands for saving lives.

Amid plenty of sunshine and New Mexico spring winds, Monday's bill signing marked one of the largest gathering of tribal leaders in person since the pandemic began. 

"It's nice to see your faces outside of Zoom," Panteah told fellow tribal leaders.

The governor also signed a measure aimed at funneling more funding to schools in high poverty areas as part of a pilot program. The Legislature appropriated $15 million for the Family Income Index for each of the next two years. That will be divided among schools selected for a pilot, funding them for reading and math interventions as well as other student supports such as hiring school counselors and social workers and creating family resource centers.

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Attanasio is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues. Follow Attanasio on Twitter.