The role of a school board, like any elected body from the County Council to the Congress, is to provide leadership and to make decisions within its scope of responsibility; decisions that are consistent with the priorities and values of the stakeholders it serves.
Because constituencies often have divergent values and priorities, that’s a significant challenge for any elected body or individual elected official. When the issues are complicated, feedback from constituents is usually limited to those community members who have a deep passion on one side of an issue; and usually, elected officials have to sort through the passions of the few and the preferences of the many. That’s certainly the case with the School Board, and it’s not an easy job.
It’s reasonable to think that most parents with children in the Los Alamos Public Schools would have strong feelings about issues facing the school district and about the educational experience that our schools provide. Despite that interest, few of us can carve out the time to attend the evening meetings where the School Board provides an opportunity for the public to offer input into Board’s decision making.
As a proactive and laudable measure, in 2011 the Los Alamos School Board went to the community and solicited highly structured preference input from a large number of parents, teachers, and other community members, spanning the elementary, middle and high school perspectives.
At that time, the School Board was facing a difficult budget season that would require cuts to both programs and positions. To try to make the best, most-rational decisions possible, the School Board chose to conduct a large scale survey of community members to develop a ranking of the community’s priorities for education programs and functions, with the intention that this prioritization would calibrate the Administration’s budget recommendations and inform the School Board’s ultimate decisions about what programs to keep and what programs to cut. They also conducted a cost analysis of all of these programs in order to understand the financial impact of each program.
Because the School Board has had a complete turnover since 2011, the current Board invited former School Board member and President Melanie McKinley to attend the Jan. 14, 2014 school board meeting. At the meeting Ms. McKinley shared the Community Survey and high level survey results with the school board and the public. Her presentation discussed the rationale for creating the survey and the impact it had on the School Board’s decision making process. You can see her excellent presentation here:
High Level Survey Results
SOSLA had a chance to briefly scan the specific survey results and has asked the School Board for a copy of the results so that we can make them available to the public. If we obtain them from the School Board, we’ll provide them on the SOSLA website at http://soslosalamos.com.
Although we don’t have a hard copy, some findings stood out. Out of 171 priorities identified across elementary, middle and high school respondents; a single priority consistently ranked #1: Class size, or the number of students per classroom teacher. Parents, teachers, and community members across all grades ranked small class size as their top priority.
Other top priorities included educational opportunities for students in music, art, and physical education; in-school support from nurses and instructional assistants; after-school programs; and assigned principals for each elementary school.
Prior to Ms. McKinley’s valuable presentation, SOSLA was unaware of the survey results and was surprised to learn that this strong preference information was available going into the 2013-2014 school year.
To balance the budget this school year, class sizes in many schools have risen precipitously due to funding shortfalls; with class sizes of up to 28 students in some second grade classes, edging toward twice the National Education Association recommended class size for these young learners. It’s vexing to now understand that this action, contrary to the community’s top educational priority of small class sizes, was taken at a time when LAPS was simultaneously building a surplus in reserve funding from lease revenue that is now approaching $8 million; money that was readily available to keep class sizes small in the near term.
SOSLA understands that there was some logic to this; that future borrowing costs would be very minimally less if the schools retained a large cash surplus. But, we question whether it was worth sacrificing the community’s top educational priority to save a small fraction of a percent on future borrowing costs.
At the Jan. 14, 2014 School Board meeting, the Board voted to create a Committee to help craft a budget for the next school year. The School Board also agreed to use the 2011 Community Survey as a part of the budgeting process to ensure that community values are appropriately considered when budgetary decisions are made.
SOSLA encourages interested citizens to monitor and contribute to this budget process. We continue to believe that overall, there are insufficient resources to both provide the student experience our community has come to expect and to fairly compensate our teachers and school staff. But whatever the outcome of this’s years constrained budget process, it should not abandon our top educational priorities.
Background on the Community Survey of Educational Priorities
In 2011, the School Board, made up of Joan Ahlers, Jody Benson, Thelma Hahn and Melanie McKinley, was facing a budget deficit. They decided to cost out all the educational and enrichment programs offered, noting which were mandated by law, and which were optional. Then the Board developed an “austerity budget” that included just the things the school district is required to provide by law, with the intention of laying on the optional items on a prioritized basis until all the available resources were exhausted.
The striking revelation was that the austerity budget, providing for the very minimum offerings required by law, used practically all of the funds the system was slated to receive from the New Mexico Public Education Department. The austerity budget did not include any athletic programs; did not include small class sizes; elementary school specials (art, music, library, physical education); instructional assistants; a librarian for the middle school; nurses, counselors, and principals at every school; and many, many other elements our community expects as a normal part of our children’s educational experience.
The $8 million provided by the Department of Energy as a special educational supplement to Los Alamos was the next funding source available to the school board to rise above the bare bones budget with the community’s priorities. So the School Board developed a survey that focused on over 170 individual program elements, with the focus of how each program element impacted the student educational experience. Over 700 individuals completed the survey with good participation from all types of community members and from all schools.
The School Board administered the survey; ranked the results; organized the results into quintiles; and found that the $8 million from the Federal Government would pay for almost all of the programs in the top two quintiles of community priorities. These 54 programs or functions included smaller class size; athletics programs; counselors and nurses at every school; elementary principals and instructional assistants; middle school assistant principal; custodians; technology support; elementary specials including band and orchestra; instructional supplies and software; substitutes; transportation mechanics and supervisor; and many other programs.
Some of the programs in the bottom three quintiles were funded through the rental income the district generates from its lease properties. Many other programs were cut or reduced.
SOSLA applauds the 2011 School Board for actively seeking broad, high quality community feedback to incorporate into their decision making; and for taking a prioritized zero-based approach to budgeting for the Schools. We are encouraged that the current School Board will use the Community Survey results as an important feedback tool in the development of the budget for the coming school year.
To learn more about Save Our Schools Los Alamos, go to http://soslosalamos.com.