Between the Lines

As literacy funding dips, tension among nonprofits grows

Here's a shocking statistic: Nearly half of all New Mexicans can't read at a sixth-grade level. Yet in 2011, when the state Legislature faced a $450 million budget deficit, adult literacy funding was one of the many programs on the chopping block.

That year, the state slashed adult literacy support by 57 percent [news, Dec. 14, 2011: "Unread"]. For the nonprofits focused on improving New Mexico's dismal literacy rate—which in turn affects its education system and job market—the cuts were significant.

State funding for Literacy Volunteers of Santa Fe, one of the state's largest literacy programs, dropped from $15,000 to $5,000 that year, according to LVSF Executive Director Letty Naranjo. In the past five years, founder Meredith Machen estimates LVSF has lost one-third of its students and been forced to redirect some of its resources from teaching to fundraising. Other organizations are even worse off: Literacy Volunteers of Doña Ana County, which has also faced funding cuts, has seen its student population sink from 600 to 300 in the past two years. This year, state funding for both organizations—as well as eight others—hit zero.

"We're crippled, and we're running at half capacity because of this change," says Steve DeGiulio, LVDAC's literacy program coordinator.

That change has led to tensions between local literacy programs like LVSF the New Mexico Coalition for Literacy, the nonprofit charged with distributing state funding among them. Essentially, the new policy bars granting state literacy funds to nonprofits that receive assistance through the state- and federally-funded Adult Basic Education, or ABE, program.

"This year, rather suddenly and unexpectedly, the State made revisions to our contract which prohibited us from funding the ABE-based literacy programs, as it would be considered a duplication," explains NMCL Executive Director Heather Heunermund in an email to SFR. This fiscal year, the coalition spent $133,000 on literacy programs—only $16,000 less than it spent in FY2012, but some literacy providers say they saw disproportionate cuts.

"It appeared as though the ABE programs had been double dipping for all of these years since they already receive State and Federal funding for both ABE and literacy," Heunermund continues.

LVSF staffers dispute that assessment. According to the nonprofit registry GuideStar, in 2010, LVSF reported income of $95,000 from ABE. But Machen says the ABE numbers aren't grant funding, but rather an accounting for resources (computers, classroom space, etc.) shared with an ABE-funded program run by Santa Fe Community College.The two programs served different students: state-funded literacy programming was limited to students in sixth grade and below, while the ABE programming is for seventh graders and higher.

"There's no way we're double-dipping," Naranjo says. "Double-dipping would be counting the same students twice."

Last fall, DeGiulio, Naranjo and six other literacy program directors signed a joint letter to State Librarian Devon Skeele, airing their frustration with NMCL. The letter says NMCL lacks "a clear rubric or formula" for how it spends state funds.

"Literacy programs have little or no input into NMCL policies and are denied access to grant criteria," the letter reads.

NMCL, however, faces its own set of challenges. Heunermund notes that some community programs saw funding cuts because they failed to file documentation properly. LVSF, she writes, was serving too few "basic literacy" students and made a mistake on its 990 tax form.

In any case, she adds, "The literacy programs we fund and support are satisfied with our services. The directors with whom you have spoken are not our programs."

Yet while Heunermund says the coalition is trying to work with local literacy programs, a recent email exchange illustrates the tension on both sides.

"I hate to be fussy," DeGiulio wrote to Heunermund, "but since NMCL cannot support our program…you need to remove our program's name from the map on the NMCL web site that claims LV-DAC as a program you support."

Heunermund replied that the removal was "in process" and told DeGiulio to "calm down."

"In fact, get your own house in order before you point fingers and remove our logo from your program's website PRONTO!" she wrote. She ended with a curt farewell: "Have a nice life."

As LVSF's state funding has dwindled, the organization says it's been scrambling to make up the difference through donations—but, literacy coordinator Kevan Morshed notes, that can't last forever.

"How many times can you ask the same people?" he asks.

State Sen. Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, says the lack of state funding going to LVSF is a "real concern."

"Literacy Volunteers of Santa Fe has a proven track record in our community," Wirth writes in an email. "This is something I will ask the Legislative Finance Committee to review during the upcoming interim session."

Naranjo adds that despite the funding cuts, NMCL and literacy programs like hers can still work together.

"They're a statewide coalition, even though we're not receiving funding from them," she says. "Why are they throwing us to the dogs?"

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