Forum spotlights school candidates; bond

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By Carol A. Clark

A crowd braved the cold Thursday evening to hear school board candidates and those running for UNM-LA's advisory board present backgrounds and ideas for advancing local education.

District 2 school board candidate Melanie McKinley is a chemical engineer and stay at home mom whose children are 6, 8, 10 and 12 years of age. "When I finish my first term, I will have two high schoolers, a middle schooler and one child in elementary school," she said.

McKinley, who has served as a PTO president, told the audience she would like to see the district become a shinning example of businesses and schools working together.

As it turns out, McKinley and the other candidates are unopposed in the Feb. 3 election.

After a long reprieve, this will be the second time Thelma Hahn, who resides in District 1, will again serve on the school board. “I probably come from more of a historical background…I taught at the district for 26 years in all of the schools.”

The bond issue is the top priority, she said, adding that she wishes everyone would get more facts about the schools and the condition they are in. Hahn has a master’s degree in art education.

Two incumbents, Nelson Hoffman and Ron Dolin, both PhDs, will each bring eight years experience to their third terms on the UNM-LA Advisory Board.

“…I consider it a privilege to serve the community and the college…” Hoffman said. “Our duties on the board include approving the annual budget that is recommended to the university Regents and approving and calling for elections for property tax levies.”

Dolin expressed pride in the fact that UNM-LA students who go on to the main campus, after two years outperform juniors and those students coming from other branch campuses.

Micheline Devaurs, holds a master’s degree in hydrology. She is a newcomer to the board but not to public service. She currently serves on the Planning and Zoning Commission and previously volunteered with United Way and The Art Center at Fuller Lodge.

“I see a lot of potential between UNM-LA and LANL,” she said.

With Devaurs joining the board, four of its five members are LANL employees.

"I think the community is very fortunate to have such fine people willing to run - it's a hard job and you should be commended," said President Chris Chandler of the League of Women Voters.

The League and the American Association of University Women cosponsored the forum, which also featured School Board President Steve Girrens and resident Richard Hanneman debating the pros and cons of the district's current bond election.

Girrens began by saying there is probably never a perfect time to put a bond on the ballot or ask a community to raise taxes, but the deterioration of school facilities cannot wait any longer.

“Los Alamos tax rate is currently 30th out of 33 counties in New Mexico,” he said. “Our neighbors in Pojoaque, Bernalillo, Los Lunas, Cuba and Jemez Valley are all paying twice the tax rate of Los Alamos to support their schools.”

Girrens and others have been working on the bond issue for two-and-a-half years, he said, and it has been an unswerving school board priority.

The Public School Facilities Authority recently ranked the weighted facility condition index of all public school facilities in the State. Los Alamos High School ranked a poor 27 out of 748 schools in New Mexico the middle school a low 50 and Aspen just 51.

“The longer we delay, the more severe the problem will grow,” Girrens said. “The best response to negative economic news it investing in the future economy. Our children are the future.”

“Some folks think the glass is half full; others think it is half empty,” Hanneman began his argument. “The truth is – it’s a glass of water – or maybe it’s gin, you don’t know until you drink it.”

This is hardly the time to be going $40 million in debt, he said.

“This debt is suppose to be paid for through property taxes but property values continue to fall, putting downward pressure on tax value, which will result either in less total revenue for a given tax rate, or an increase in taxes to make up for the lost revenue.”

The bond’s security should it pass, explained School Board Vice President Joan Ahlers, is the promise to pay via taxes.

Hanneman would support a bond, he said, were it to occur towards the end of the first quarter in 2010. The County’s capital expenditures, the Downtown Master Plan, the school’s 20-year plan and the spending projects by the State were all drawn up when the economy was being fueled by excess consumption well beyond production – by a factor of eight, Hanneman said.

“Well the chickens have come home to roost and the yard’s going to be a mess for a while,” he said.

The Bond election is a mail-in election. Ballots were mailed to registered voters Jan. 6 and are due back to the County Clerk's office by 7 p.m. Jan. 27.

Voting for the School Board and UNMLA Advisory Board begins with absentee by-mail voting today and continues with absentee in-person

Voting Jan. 14. Absentee voting ends Jan. 30.