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In commenting on large class sizes, a Los Alamos School Board member said: “This (school) district, financially, is headed toward an iceberg like the Titanic.” The issue is much broader than class size.
Because of the way New Mexico funds K-12 education, our schools won’t have the resources moving forward to support the educational quality we have come to expect. Funding for the operation of New Mexico schools is collected into a central pool, and distributed back to the school districts according to a complex “equalization” formula.
The state requires and funds a “sufficient” educational program, but many of us would like to build and sustain superb schools. Unfortunately, New Mexico takes the punitive position that individual districts are prohibited from spending more on education than the formula provides. This approach says: if everyone can’t have it, you can’t have it.
Los Alamos took on this funding approach in court almost 40 years ago and lost; the court found not that the law is reasonable, or even good policy, but simply that the governor and legislature had the legitimate authority to enact it. Since then, our community leaders have worked to creatively bridge the gap between our high expectations for education and the declining resources available from the New Mexico funding pool — through leasing excess property and by convincing Congress that quality public schools here are critical for recruiting and retention of the key staff needed to sustain the laboratory; leading to a special federal law that transfers a significant, fixed sum to our schools each year, but without inflation adjustment.
Because of other aspects of the distribution formula, these revenue sources still leave Los Alamos in the middle of the New Mexico pack with regard to funding, and far behind educationally oriented communities in other states. This is especially vexing to us as we see the county spending generously on priorities we consider to be much less important than education.
Our sense is that Los Alamos has a strong cultural commitment to education. To us, that should be reflected through: low student-to-teacher ratios; extraordinary opportunities for student academic, cultural, and athletic enrichment; outstanding services for our students with special needs and special gifts; and staff enrichment and compensation benchmarked to the most successful school districts in our nation, rather than to the New Mexico average. Our county and state leaders should embrace, rather than obstruct, those objectives. Personally, we would have those elements for all the schools in New Mexico, but if we can’t; we would still have them here.
We find it unacceptable that class sizes are rising, that enrichment programs are endangered, that special needs and gifted programs compete with mainstream student programs for funding and that school staff are second-tier county employees in terms of compensation.
We see two opportunities for action.
First, our county council should absorb all possible costs that are now being borne by the school department, up to the limit of the law, to free up funding for educational priorities. School nurses could become county EMT or health employees, materials and subscriptions for school libraries could be loaned to schools from the county-funded library collection, school facilities and administrative functions could be taken over by the county and leased back to the schools on favorable terms and school grounds could be subsumed by the county parks department. This avenue should be immediately and exhaustively pursued.
Second, our community should work for the right to contribute local supplements to the state-provided school funding levels. Communities that desire quality beyond the “sufficient” level, and that are willing to pay for that quality should be able to do so.
Los Alamos is an engine for prosperity, regional growth and philanthropy in Northern New Mexico. Strong public schools, meeting the high standards of our community, are central to the health of the golden goose that we are for this region. It is not unreasonable to ask the state to allow us to spend our local money, on our local priorities.
Tim and Susan O’Leary