LAPS invited to split costs

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UNM-LA asks school district to divide election costs

By Carol A. Clark

Running separate elections will cost Los Alamos Public Schools and UNM-Los Alamos $25,000 a piece in county clerk fees alone — but the alternative could potentially devastate the schools.

“The benefit is we save $12,500 but we put $3.3 million at risk … ours is not a tax increase and people may get confused about that … I would really like the opportunity to do my due diligence and then bring this issue back for consideration,” President Joan Ahlers said to the board. “I thank you (Page) for bringing this to us – I just have a feeling in my gut that the timing is unfortunate.”

UNM-LA Executive Director Cedric Page extended the offer to school board members Tuesday saying in this tough economy it makes sense to share that cost by running a joint election.

Much discussion ensued surrounding whether the public will be able to keep the two elections straight if run together.

“As a member of said public I think I would welcome the opportunity to vote once,” said a woman from the audience. “And I think you’re underestimating the public’s ability to comprehend why you’re doing this.”

The upcoming election, expected to take place early next year, includes the school district’s six-year referendum, which is a continuation of previous action for the schools and will not raise taxes.

UNM-LA’s election seeks operational support from voters with a 2 mil levy, not a bond for capital improvements. Voters approved a 1 mil levy for the college 27 years ago, Page said. Each mil equals $767,000 in Los Alamos County so homeowners with an appraised value of $400,000 would see a $52.67 annual tax increase.

School board member Thelma Hahn said it would be difficult to increase taxes because of the county’s recent 36 percent property tax hike set for November.

Board member Jody Benson asked Page what the consequence would be to the college budget if the district opted not to participate in a joint election.

The college would have to find a way to raise the funds, he said.

“The consequence in the community might be why are we having two elections from these two cooperating institutions,” Page said.

LAPS Superintendent Gene Schmidt advised the board to look very seriously at a joint election with the college.

“UNM has been a good friend … but we join together knowing it’s a risk,” he said, adding also that the community might have a difficult time understanding why both entities would pay $25,000 each.

The college requested and voters approved a capital bond in 1998, but that debt is since retired. UNM-LA’s rate of support through mil levy is one of the lowest of any of the state’s community colleges, Page said at the last advisory board meeting.

“We are at a critical point at UNM-LA in that we have had to reduce core faculty and depend on adjunct instructors,” Advisory Board Chair Marie Chiravalle said at the time. This means reduced support and advisement services for students enrolled at UNM-LA, she said.

Enrollment has been increasing over the past four semesters at UNM-LA and the campus has been struggling to serve more students with static resources.

“Adverse fiscal circumstances beyond our control have driven UNM-LA to a really difficult critical financial situation,” Chiravalle. said. “We have tried to maintain through management decisions rather than seeking public support, but we have done all that we can do.”

The school board will consider the joint election issue at its Oct. 22 meeting.