Schools reap substantial benefit

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Tax hike allows district to begin building program

By Carol A. Clark

Voters agreed to 32 percent of Los Alamos County’s 36 percent tax increase set to go into affect in November when they approved a $40 million school bond on Jan. 17.

The 32 percent tax boost allows the district to begin a vigorous building program that will bring a new classroom building to Los Alamos High School and renovate the library and gymnasium at LAHS, explained LAPS Construction Administrator Herb McLean during a meeting Friday with Superintendent Gene Schmidt.

“We’re entering a really exciting time for Los Alamos and I base that on a prequalification conference we had today for a Construction Manager at Risk (CMAR), which is when we bring a contractor in very early on in the process,” Schmidt said.

The rate hike also will provide a new multipurpose building and new classroom building to replace portables at Los Alamos Middle School and commission design work to replace the main classroom wing at Aspen Elementary School.

“We’ve had eight bond or referendum elections in the last 14 years to support our aging facilities,” McLean said. “The Jan. 17 vote had a voter turnout of 51 percent, which is tied for the third highest voter turnout of any of these elections. On Jan. 17, 61 percent of the voters supported the plan put forth by the school board to start a 20-year plan to renovate or replace aging school buildings in the district.”

In August 2008, the district began a public information program to inform the community about the school board’s plan to hold a bond election in January. Information about the district’s 20-year facilities plan and bond election were posted on the district’s Web site and updates were provided to board members at school board meetings.

“Since the vote, the district hired an architect to begin design work on replacing B, C and D wings at LAHS. The district is conducting committee work on developing educational specifications for the high school, which will describe what the B, C, D wing replacement building will be educationally and how it will fit with the rest of the campus,” McLean said. “The entire campus is being looked at. We’ll hold several community meetings during the design process with the first one at 6 p.m. on Oct. 8 in the Speech Theater at the high school.”

Current plans call for construction work to begin next summer on the B, C, D, wing replacement building with completion scheduled for winter 2011. The building will probably be a two-story classroom building that will take a prominent place behind A wing, he said. Other work at LAHS will take place during 2010 and 2011 and two buildings will be constructed at LAMS during 2011 and 2012.

“The district has identified $200 million in projects to bring buildings up to current standards. Bonds are the only way New Mexico state law provides for schools to raise money for capital projects,” Mclean said. “The school board determined that a way to maximize the capital dollars coming to the district was to maximize the bonding capacity allowed by state law, which was $40 million – a percentage of total assessed property values in Los Alamos County.”

By bonding to capacity, he explained that LAPS could qualify for more state dollars coming to the district from the state’s Public Schools Capital Outlay Council (PSCOC), which McLean said is a committee tasked by the Legislature to bring capital dollars to New Mexico schools.

LAPS was awarded $495,000 in June to help with design and educational specification work at the high school. An additional $7.1 million was set aside for the district to use in construction at LAHS, which will allow the district to bring the whole campus up to “Educational Adequacy.”

“Since the bond passed in January, the PSCOC recognized the willingness of the community of Los Alamos to support their schools and gave the district the matching funds of $7.6 million,” McLean said.

The school district has now increased its bonding capacity to the maximum allowed by law in the state of New Mexico so there will be no new taxes, McLean said.

“Bond issues are on a four-year cycle. Every four years the district asks for the community’s support in its capital improvement program,” he said. “Taxes went up when the district started its current capital improvement program in 1998. There were two subsequent bond votes, which maintained tax rates at the level started in 1998. Since we have increased taxes this year by 32 percent, when we go to the voters for their continued support four years from now taxes will not increase.”

If it seems like there are more votes for district money than the four bond votes held since 1998 that’s because there have been. Every four years the district conducts a bond issue to maintain current funding levels, McLean explained, and every five years the district conducts a referendum issue, which gives the district approximately $2 million annually to fund maintenance projects such as carpet replacement, minor building and land improvements and technology upgrades.