Superintendent highlights past year’s challenges

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By Carol A. Clark

The economic crisis hadn’t hit when Assistant Superintendent Mary McLeod agreed to serve as superintendent for a year before retiring this July.

In the months that followed, McLeod has successfully battled the Legislature against a funding formula threatening to cost the district $2.5 million, championed a bond election desperately needed to maintain aging school facilities and gave struggling students an alternative to dropping out.

If she were a little bit younger, McLeod  would stay on, she told the audience gathered to hear her speak at the Chamber Business Breakfast at UNM-LA this morning. The straight A student moved here when she began high school and promptly began getting Fs. Los Alamos High School was so far ahead of what she was used to but fortunately she had excellent teachers with very high standards who helped her excel.

That experience motivated her to want to develop a system in which every student could excel, she said.

The district now has a school improvement plan in place that’s a living plan that has enabled every school principal to know the names of each student struggling and the plans in place to help them as well as all the other students.

McLeod described feeling alarmed about students wanting to drop out and get their GED. She spoke to every one of them and found two common denominators.

They had a poor attendance record from early on and in high school started losing credit and fell so far behind that they felt they couldn’t catch up and graduate with their class.

McLeod decided the district needed a credit recovery program so that the minute a student loses a credit, the school gets right on it. The program was developed and put to the test this week.

“A senior came in who was five credits behind,” McLeod said. “I was able to convince her she could recover those credits and graduate. That’s the first time I’ve been able to talk a student out of dropping out because now we have something to offer.”

McLeod also has had to find creative solutions to offset declining enrollment and unit values, which have resulted in a $2.5 million shortfall for next year’s budget.

While there has been significant enrollment decline for some 10 years, she said the district hasn’t reduced the number of teachers and other staff.

The new budget calls for a reduction of 10 teachers and nine positions at the district level. Attrition, reassignments and an innovative team cleaning program will accomplish most or all of those reductions, she said.

Other ways the district is making up the shortfall include perhaps having all personnel take a day off without pay during President’s Day weekend and shutting down all buildings to save utilities.

The union is considering the idea, which McLeod said would save some $210,000. The district is saving some $280,000 a year on energy costs. LAPS spends about $400,000 per year on substitute teachers, which she said will be reduced at the district level by half. Along with additional efforts, McLeod said they’ve identified some $1.5 million in savings.

The district also is receiving $1.7 million in stimulus money, which she cautions is probably just for next year.

The district assembled a finance committee comprised of members from the bank, county, schools and community to help guide its budgetary issues this last year. McLeod praised the job they did and said they’ve agreed to continue on and help the district develop a five-year financial plan.

She hopes the contract between the schools and the county on the Trinity Development project is signed and on its way to the state finance board by the time she retires. She praised the relationship developed between the county and the schools and said the contract is “more complicated than anyone can know.”

Former School Board President Steve Girrens commended McLeod for bringing a transparency of Los Alamos Public Schools to the community.

“We’re all in this together – these are our kids and this is our town and we’ve got to work on solving these issues together,” McLeod said.

She again thanked the community for passing the bond.

McLeod spoke of incoming superintendent Eugene Schmidt from Washington.

“We’ve got a great new superintendent coming,” she said. “I think he and his wife are going to be a good fit for Los Alamos. Gene’s not the kind of guy who comes in and says you’re going to do it my way.”

Schmidt officially starts this summer with planned overlap time in which McLeod will help him get up to speed.

Chamber Member Coordinator Katy Korkos said, “I feel Mary really gave the community a gift by serving as superintendent this last year.”

“One of my regrets about retiring is I love what’s happening in education now,” McLeod said, adding that she’ll have to find a way to stay involved.

McLeod concluded by saying, “It’s been a great year – I’ve really loved it.”

Contact Carol A. Clark at lanews@lamonitor.com or (505) 662-4185 ext. 25. Read her blog at www.newsextras.wordpress.com.