School finance makes sense if we use our heads

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By The Staff

There are many places in the U.S wherea the value of education may seem abstract, but in Los Alamos that value is tangible. It can be seen and felt.

Education built this town and it remains one of the best educated population in the country. To cite a typical example, 60 percent of Los Alamos residents have bachelor’s degrees, compared to 24 percent in the country as a whole, according to the last census.

Even with hard choices in store for our community’s educational future, Los Alamos is more fortunate than most.

In the short term, the county’s breadwinner, Los Alamos National Laboratory, has just had its funding approved, barring a very improbable veto by President Obama in the next few days. The appropriation bill supports the lab on favorable terms for another year, with future prospects looking at the very least, reasonably steady for several years to come.

There are many worse situations, as we know, around our state and country. Michigan comes to mind on the national level, where a typical editorial on school finance is about how the “truth hurt and “whether we like it or not,” is the chilling introductory phrase for pulling the pins out from under a generation of students.

Rather than a wrenching decision on how to “delay the inevitable,” the people of Los Alamos are still in a position to decide whether or not to make a sacrifice on behalf of a common value.  The amount will seem trivial to some and perhaps painful to others.

But according to educators, these are steps needed to keep within stretching distance of the quality of education the county’s residents need and deserve.

As the community’s two educational institutions prepare to come forward with plans to ask voters to approve — and property owners to underwrite — fundamental investments in education, it’s a time to use our heads.

First, we should know what is happening and why, what it costs or doesn’t cost and whether the costs are justified.

The University of New Mexico-Los Alamos, founded in 1980, is on course to ask county voters for a two-mil levy increase to support operational costs at the community college. If the measure is approved by the UNM Board of Regents, it will be the first time in 27 years that UNM-LA has come to the community for additional operational assistance. A capital bond was approved in 1998, but has been retired in the meantime. UNM-LA’s current one-mill levy is one of the lowest in the state.

Meanwhile, UNM-LA faces a pile of challenges, including increased enrollment, reduced core teaching staff and unfunded mandates from state educational requirements.

This tax increase for homeowners would raise $1,534,000 in additional annual operating funds for the college and would add $105.34 to property tax on a $400,000 house.

The Board of Education of the Los Alamos Public Schools, meanwhile, will also discuss their tax referendum this week. For the public schools, the matter is not about a property tax increase, but rather about continuing an existing 3.246 mill levy. Approval of this item would not add to the property tax, but rather would continue the current level for another six years.

The public schools tax pays for a wide variety of relatively small scale capital expenses, like smaller construction projects and remodeling of public school buildings, as well as computers and other equipment, furniture, school ground improvements, activity vehicles. There is also a small (5 percent) amount allowable for administering the projects.

Clearly, the educational community’s new and continuing claims on property taxes has become a potentially harder sell, coming after the approval of a $40 million school construction bond early this year.

Nobody wants to pay more taxes. But that measure passed with about half the people voting by a typical 61 percent margin, indicating a solid majority of voters could see the need for self-reliance and understood the universal value of education.

A town of smart people backed the kind of education that helped them get this far is about to be asked for a little more and a little longer.

In a conversation this week, LAPS Superintendent Gene Schmidt had the current special legislative session in Santa Fe in mind when he said, “This referendum is critical because of the uncertainty at the state level. Local dollars will be driving our ship into the future. We can’t manage what happens in Santa Fe, but we can in Los Alamos.”