By ANITA SCHWENDT
I am concerned about the lack of funding for education in the state, and how it affects the quality of education in Los Alamos.
The community is committed to strong education, but the funding is not supportive of the quality that this town has come to expect. Considering that, for the last few decades, the great schools in Los Alamos have attracted and kept many families in this town, the quality of education is not just a concern for current parents, but for LANL, the county, as well as other community members. It is a source of recruiting and retention for LANL. LANL supports our local and state economy, so our local economy relies on a healthy lab.
Why is education a concern in Los Alamos? Student/teacher ratios are increasing, enrichment programs are at risk, programs for students with special needs and special gifts are affected, and teacher salaries are well below their worth ($$$ starting salary.) The funding is so tight that a small change in enrollment causes a cascade affect on resources. A reduction in enrollment by just a handful at a school causes the administration and the school board to revisit priorities and make new decisions regarding resources.
If I had it my way, we would increase funding to all NM school districts to improve the education system state-wide. However, that is an insurmountable problem. For now, I am thinking locally. So, a few parents and I delved into the funding situation in Los Alamos. I learned from local, passionate folks knowledgable of the situation. (Thanks to Dr. Gene Schmidt, Rep. Stephanie Garcia Richard, and School Board Representatives Kevin Honnell and Matt Williams for taking the time to help us understand the challenges.) Here is what I have learned so far:
- It is a myth that we are special in the amount of funding we receive. School districts get both federal and state funding. The state funding for each district is determined by a formula using a number of variables. The federal funding usually comes from Title 1, but in Los Alamos our federal funding comes from DOE. Many refer to the DOE funds as though we are the envy of all other districts in the state. But in fact, we are 16th in the state out of 89 school districts in the percentage of total school district funds that come from the federal government.
- The issue of out-of-district students is a hot-button topic, but is not well understood by most of the community. It would be fruitful for the school district to educate the community about the value of these kids in both financial terms as well as other terms. The administration has expressed that if we reduce or remove the out-of-district kids, our financial situation declines even further. My understanding is that if we no longer allowed them to attend our schools, then LAPS would need to close an elementary school, and sports, enrichment programs, as well as other “extras” district-wide would need to be prioritized. Programs would be cut. The funding from out-of-district students contributes to the “overhead” of running the school district. So it is not just a matter of reducing the number of schools, and moving on. Every school would feel it. (I am a supporter of out-of-district students for many reasons beyond financial.)
- Due to state imposed regulations, we as a county can contribute to the capital portion of school funding, but we cannot supplement the operational funds. In other words, we as a community can direct resources towards building new schools, but we cannot direct resources towards hiring additional teachers nor to increase teacher pay to a competitive level.
The question is, then, what can we do to begin addressing the situation? As a first step, we as a community along with the school board and the administration need to come to a consensus on the facts of the situation. Then, if we as a community feel the problem is serious enough to address, we can come up with a robust plan to attempt to address it.
As part of gaining consensus and educating ourselves, I challenge everyone to talk to a few teachers and find out what their experiences have been and if they have any suggestions. Ask them if they feel the effects of a tight budget. Ask them if they feel adequately compensated for their hard work. Ask them about classroom sizes. (Not intended to be a finger-pointing process, but rather a reality check.) After all, they are the true experts in all of this. They are our greatest resources in the schools.