School renewal takes shape

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By Roger Snodgrass

Nine months away from a likely school bond referendum that has not been formally set, Los Alamos Board of Education President Steve Girrens and retiring Superintendent Jim Anderson sounded like the election plan was all but a go.

Speaking at a Kiwanis Club luncheon Tuesday, Girrens laid out the 20-year program that many civic and community groups will probably see over the next several months.

Coming up on the third cycle of the first-ever school bond program, Girrens said the $14 million that came into the system after 1998 was almost evenly divided between capital improvement (“bricks and mortar”) and maintenance. But the second round in 2006 has tilted 5-to-1 toward maintenance.

“It’s like a ship taking on water with not enough bilge pump to take it out,” Girrens said.

The reality he said is that a new high school would probably cost more than $100 million, using a recent Albuquerque budget as an example.

With limits on how much the county can tax itself, the statutory bonding ceiling would be about $43 million for the GO (General Obligation) bonds that are backed by the taxing power of the municipality.

The reality, Girrens said, is that the county can’t afford the new high school, middle school and elementary school that it needs.

“We have to be smarter,” he said.

So, with a great deal of input from an appointed Facilities Strategic Planning Commission, a 16-to-20-year plan has emerged involving a series of funding cycles that would be renewed and topped up close to peak borrowing power every four years.

The plan prescribes $110-120 million worth of careful investment, replacing buildings or parts of buildings only when necessary and renovating in situations where the investment returns value.

Starting with the biggest project renovation of three central wings (B, C and D) of the high school, the first cycle would also include starting new classrooms and an expanded cafeteria at the middle school, and classroom design at Aspen Elementary.

A full power-point briefing is available from a link, “Bond election – 2009” on the school’s website, http://laschools.net/laschools.

Girrens said the school board was preparing to schedule the bond election for February 2009, perhaps at its first meeting in June and that it would take a unanimous vote by the school board to move forward.

“We’re going to raise taxes,” he said. “And you know how that goes over – like a lead brick.”

He said it would add 5.5 mils to property taxes now levied for the schools. Tax rate would go up to a total of 12.08 mils total and increases for homeowners is estimated at $15.16 per $100,000 of full value, according to one of the charts in the presentation.

“This is stand-up time,” he said, a time to “be responsible for some of the gifts we’ve been given.”

Talks continue with the county, with a joint committee exploring ways to work together to ease the burden.

“It’s not just the schools trying to do it all ourselves,” Girrens said.

Anderson said he thought there was some momentum going because of the good plan and the conversations with the county on “how to lessen the burden and get what we need.”

He said the $1 million per year that comes from leasing school facilities to the laboratory has been going into the operating fund is now “socked away to help with the facilities.”

Barbara Stoddard asked if there were any plans to build a middle school in White Rock.

“That’s not in our plan,” Anderson said. “It would be costly.”