School board weighs final budget

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By Roger Snodgrass

The Los Alamos School Board met briefly Tuesday at noon to discuss a remaining gap in the budget before its next meeting Thursday, when they plan to vote on finalizing the school budget for the coming year.

A drop in enrollment and a $30 reduction per student in the state equalization formula has created a $2.5 million shortfall in revenue for the 2009-10 school year.

“The administration has found $1.5 million in creative budgeting,” said School Board President Joan Ahlers. “These are cuts that won’t hurt, but we’re still $1 million short.”

Last year’s funding shortfall was met by taking $700,000 out of a group of savings accounts called “leased facilities accounts.”

These include funds from past property sales and income from school properties that are under lease.

According to a summary statement provided by the schools’ business manager John Wolfe, the leased facilities accounts as of the end of March totaled $6,730,975.

Ahlers said she was not in favor of tapping into this account any more than necessary.

Board member Melanie McKinley said she agreed philosophically but that the money was intended to be “a rainy day fund.”

Compared to a lot of other places, Ahlers said, “It’s not raining out there.”

Vice President Ken Johnson said the answer for how much to take out needed to be something between zero and the full amount.

There were some other small extra costs, like the hot lunch program at the middle school, Ahlers said, that she wanted to be visible as they made their decision.

In order to avoid chronic shortfalls like this one, McKinley said, “I want to see a long-range plan,” suggesting there could be some savings longer term by some elementary school consolidation.

Ahlers said another reason not to rely on the leased facilities accounts was to have some extra money that will be needed over time for the elementary schools.

“They’re going to need some work,” she said. “That’s what I’d like to reserve this money for.”

Board member Jody Benson asked about the possibility of additional revenues from out-of-district enrollments.

“It’s not as popular as you think,” Ahlers said.

 “Students at higher grades don’t succeed here,” Johnson said. “But the policy can’t restrict by age.”

Another uncertainty related to the budget has to do with ongoing union negotiations with the teachers, who have been unwilling to concede an additional $200,000 for the year.

Contacted this morning, Wolfe said the income from the leases is currently about $1.6 million per year, but that there have been some revisions that will increase that to about $2 million a year.

These are school properties like the Canyon, Mesa and Pajarito complexes that are leased to Los Alamos National Laboratory.

The full operational budget for the school is about $36 million a year, which includes classrooms and salaries and all district expenses.

The board will meet again Thursday in the district boardroom to finalize the budget.