School board nixes fine print

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By Gabriel Vasquez

Although the pending approval of a lease resolution with Los Alamos National Laboratory took up the bulk of Tuesday’s school board meeting, a presentation given by teachers of the Career Tech program at Los Alamos High School managed to steal the spotlight.

Board members along with Charlotte Hetherington, a Santa Fe attorney hired by the district to bargain with LANL, protracted negotiations over existing sites that Los Alamos Public Schools leases to the lab, which include the Mesa, Pueblo, Pajarito and Canyon sites.

A careful examination of the resolution’s wording, which would essentially authorize the renewal of leases between the two parties, was the main focus of the discussion.

Regarding the language of the resolution drafted by Hetherington, board member Alison Beckman commented, “This is very confusing. It seems very slanted towards the lab.”

“It is slanted toward the lab,” Hetherington said. “This is the language that has been in the lease since the time the original leases were entered into. Because these leases have such a short time left, the decision was that we should work only on those provisions of the lease that need changing because they were contrary to state law or they didn’t make any sense.”

Board members were unsatisfied with that conclusion, and asked that several parts of the resolution be reworded.

Specifically, board members asked that wording be changed so that approval of the resolution (lease amendments included), had to be a collective decision of the board, rather than being the sole responsibility of the board president and superintendent, as stated in the original contract.

Board President Steve Girrens said board members would effectively be giving up their decision-making power if the contract was signed as is.

“Leases and land we are accountable for,” Beckman said. “So any leases, the board wants to approve.”

Another topic of discussion was the current “hold-over” state of three of the properties being leased.

Because the 2004 contract between LANL and the schools was a binding agreement that included a government organization, fines that would normally be assessed as a result of a property being in “hold-over” mode were nullified.

But because the new resolution states that the agreement is no longer considered a government contract, board member Joan Ahlers suggested that new fees be amended to the lease to provide incentive for LANL to renew the expired leases.

“In a traditional commercial lease there is a penalty for hold-overs,” Ahlers said. “The fact that we’re stuck in a month-to-month and our tenant could give us a 30-day notice is not a good place to be. This isn’t a government contract any longer.”

The hold-over status of the expired leases allow LANL to pay month-by-month, with the right to vacate at any time.

“One of the challenges has been, not only for the lab staff but for us, is to figure out who has the authority on different issues,” Hetherington said. “They are still internally working out some those issues.”

The discussion concluded with the resolution and lease amendments being tabled, pending further language modifications agreed upon by both parties, to be discussed at a later meeting.

The board plans to request approval of the new lease resolution from the New Mexico Board of Finance on Sept. 18.

In other business, board members approved teachers’ pay to be allotted on the 15th and 30th (or last day of the month, in case of a leap year) of every month. A renewed list of requirements for those wishing to volunteer at area schools, including a self-paid background check, was also approved.

Nearing the meeting’s conclusion, Tammy Seidel, Todd Yilk and Don Davis, teachers at LAHS involved in the school’s career tech curriculum, gave board members a presentation of past accomplishments, current triumphs, and future goals of the program.

Seidel noted the recent grants the program had recently acquired, the Perkins Basic Grant, which amounts to $28,000 every five years to be shared between the LAHS and Pojoaque High School FACS program, and the BP grant, $10,000 for purchasing of equipment for an advanced engineering design class.

Increased partnerships with UNM-LA have also upped the number of dual-credit classes available to students, Seidel said. These courses include Cisco certification, business, financial management  and accounting.

“Accounting hasn’t been in the high school for the last two years,” Seidel said. “For the kids that are really interested in accounting, they will be able to go across the street.”

Computer Science teacher Todd Yilk catalogued a list of his recent accomplishments, such as a rigorous summer programming class where students get paid by LANL to dissect old Fortran code, and an introductory programming class that is teen-friendly and doesn’t intimidate or overwhelm students.

Beckman, whose son is enrolled in Yilk’s summer class, said “its just like the spark in his eyes,” when he comes home after the class.

“The ongoing theme of the (LAHS) lab is to do rigorous computer science without losing student interest,” Yilk said.

He plans to offer a new course in computer networking and security to prepare students for Cisco certification in the fall.

Finally, and much to the delight of board members, pre-engineering teacher Don Davis gave a presentation of the achievements of students previously enrolled in his courses.

Davis showed videos of students designing and building mini-sailboats, experimenting with car design and traction control, machining their own gears and axles, testing the structural integrity of self-built bridges, building “battle-bots,” “smart-bots” and designing “green” houses with the aid of computer assisted design software.

“Engineering is about problem solving,” Davis said, who added that next year he would like to get students started in building robotic arms similar to those used in industrial settings.

Davis plans to offer several advanced pre-engineering courses in the fall, and said the interest and motivation shown by students in his classes has had him practically pushing kids out the door.

“They come in during lunch time wanting to work on these projects,” he said.

The board meeting scheduled for July 24 has been canceled, but there will be a special work session at 12:10 p.m. Friday in the boardroom.

The special board meeting topics will include the review of board policies 5,000-9,000 and the approval of the resolution on existing LANL leases and amendments.