Board agrees to shrinking school budget

-A A +A
By Roger Snodgrass

Vowing not to get into such a tight position again, the Los Alamos School Board made ends meet on their operational budget for next year.

They voted unanimously during a lunchtime meeting in the district board room Thursday to take a little more than $1, million out of their “leased facilities” account to cover what remained of a projected deficit.

The total budget and revenue will be more than $36 million next year, a decline of more than $1 million from this year.

Earlier this week, the board discussed an anticipated $2.5 revenue shortfall, half of which was caused by a reduction in the State Equalization Guarantee distribution and a slightly declining student enrollment.

The SEG is a per-student formula by which funding for school districts is calculated by the state.

Superintendent Mary McCleod explained the premises of $1.5 million in expense reduction that she had squeezed out of the budget for next year, which was not to violate “our mission or core values and not to impact programs.”

Her reductions included five secondary and five elementary teachers and 9.2 FTE (full-time equivalent) district positions, one less instructional day and one less in-service day, among a number of other measures.

Just in case the budget issues could not be resolved by other means the board had scheduled an executive session.

McCleod told the board that she had a “menu of options” to discuss, which included program cuts. And since program cuts involved job cuts, those “personnel matters” were to be discussed in a closed session.

Additional cuts turned out not to be necessary at this time, the board concluded when they emerged.

Instead, they agreed to take $1,000,000 from their “rainy day” account, the funds from current leases and interest on savings accounts, to cover the difference.

Still unresolved is the question of the loss of a day of instruction and one less in-service day – which amounts to two fewer days of pay for teachers, or $202,000 total.

The state mandated the extra day of instruction last year, but declined to fund it this year because of state revenue reductions.

This issue is still under negotiations with the employees union.

“If we don’t cut the two instructional days, then we have to find another place to cut,” said board president Joan Ahlers.

President of the Los Alamos Federation of School Employees Ellen Mills said that that the steady erosion of employee compensation is a concern – raises that don’t keep up with inflation, along with increased employee costs, deductions and co-pays for medical benefits.

“Every year we’re going back and back,” she said.

Sine the administration is in negotiation with the school employees union, business manager John Wolfe said it would still be possible to make final adjustments in the paperwork that goes to the Public Education Department in Santa Fe, as long as the revenue matched expenses.

“We’ll meet our deadline (Tuesday), and get that in on time,” he said.

Board vice president Ken Johnson said this was the second financial crisis he had experienced.

He recalled the situation in 2004, when the Department of Energy balked at continuing to make its $8 million annual contribution to the Los Alamos schools.

“In 2005, Sen. (Pete) Domenici got us that in the contract,” he said, “and we sat back and said, ‘Crisis gone.’”

One other minor adjustment proposed by Ahlers and approved by the board was to pay for board expenses out of the “leased facilities” account.

Ahlers explained after the meeting, that the board expenses of about $19,000 next year, will include an increase of about $6500.

The additional expenses are intended to cover expanded lobbying efforts, including travel to Washington, D.C., to support the continuation of the DOE funding for the schools.

“Now with the district facing budget cuts, there is no way we can have that disappear.” Ahlers said.

But since those additional expenses amount to an increase at a time when the rest of the school system is suffering cuts, she said, “It’s only fair to take that out of the operation budget and have it picked up by our leased facilities account.”