Joint County/Schools Committee strengthens ties

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By Carol A. Clark

In her seven years living in Los Alamos, School Board Vice President Joan Ahlers told county councilors Tuesday she is not aware of there ever having been such solid cooperation between the county and the schools as exists today.

During the regular County Council meeting held in Council Chambers, Ahlers praised that cooperation saying, “We serve the same people,” and she thanked council members and county staff for their participation on the Joint County/Schools Committee created to benefit the schools.

Councilor Fran Berting said it is essential to continue the joint cooperation.

Councilor Mike Wheeler agreed, saying “This is another example of how this community can move ahead and become a leader in the state, I wouldn’t be surprised if other districts start to adopt this joint approach.”

As a result of the joint committee meetings, council and the school board passed resolutions committing both organizations to work together for the betterment of the schools.

School board member Ken Johnson said without the joint effort, the schools could make a dent but it will take the whole county to make it work.

Councilor Nona Bowman said she knows there are extreme needs in the schools and encouraged the community to vote in favor of next month’s school bond.

School Board President Steve Girrens thanked councilors for their support and recognized them for showing up to committee meetings during the last 24 months. He reminded Council Chair Jim Hall of a school board meeting at Barranca Mesa Elementary School a couple of years ago that Hall and Council Vice Chair Robert Gibson attended.

It was there that Hall first suggested the two entities join forces to find ways to benefit the schools.

Hall explained that he and Gibson attended the meeting after taking a long, hard look at the dire situation surrounding the district’s aging buildings. He also encourages passage of the bond and mentioned the county’s low property taxes saying Los Alamos ranks 30 out of 33 counties.

Girrens conducted a PowerPoint presentation Tuesday, which showed the bond has become maintenance dominant and said, “The ship has taken on more water than it can pump out.”

The reality, he said, is several facilities are not adequate to meet on-going needs, but with the bond money, decades of useful life can be added to those facilities.

The plan is to address the most needy buildings in the first two funding cycles, Girrens said. He spoke of the pressing deficiencies at Los Alamos High School B-D wings.

“The building leaks like a sieve, energy-wise,” Girrens said. “It was never meant to have covers on the hallways.”

The school board presented joint committee recommendations on support for school capital funding:

    • The County will actively support the LAPS bond election to increase the property tax by 5.5 mills for LAPS school building improvements;

    • County and LAPS will develop additional options available to the County to reduce LAPS operational costs and to provide additional support for capital improvements. These will be considered as part of the annual County budget process.

The joint committee also suggested the possibility of leasing Duane Smith Auditorium and taking over the costs of maintenance, future upgrades and operation.

Another suggestion is to create a joint task force to work on development of unused school-owned land in a manner that would benefit both the County through economic development and LAPS through increased property tax or lease revenue.

Identifying and funding capital projects for the schools that either will not be funded by bond proceeds or will have an accelerated beneficial effect on LAPS operations by early implementation was another suggestion.

The committee also considered the option of reducing the County’s portion of property taxes to offset part or all of the increase being requested by the schools. However, with the County’s low property tax rates compared to other jurisdictions, the uncertainty of future GRT proceeds, and the County’s infrastructure needs, the committee did not recommend this approach.

Councilor Ken Milder addressed the importance of the joint committee saying, “What’s important to me is the next step - getting concrete projects, items that are really going to help the schools. This committee needs to stay in place, so as the funding step comes, the committee can make recommendations.”

Hall, Berting and Wheeler served on the joint committee and were all impressed, Hall said, at how the school district has handled determining its building needs as well as preparing for the upcoming bond issue.

Gibson expressed delight at seeing the solid plan the committee has come up with to help the schools, adding that he is not sure the funding will be enough for all of the school’s needs but rather will probably be a minimum.

He pointed out that while local property taxes are low, looking at property tax per capita would reveal a higher number.

Comparison tax rates are listed on the district’s website at www.laschools.net.

Also attending Tuesday’s meeting were Assistant Superintendent Kate Thomas, LAPS Business Manager John Wolfe and Cathy McAnally, assistant to the school board.