Long-time Los Alamos School Board member Kevin Honnell was recently quoted as saying: “This (school) district, financially, is headed toward an iceberg like the Titanic.” The observation was made in connection with a discussion about class size, but Dr. Honnell correctly pointed out that the issue is much broader, and it is pressing.
Because of the way in which New Mexico funds K-12 education, our Los Alamos schools don’t have the funding profile, moving forward, to support the quality schools we have come to expect, and which our community can afford. Decades ago, with the very positive aim of improving education for our state’s poorest areas, the formula for educational funding was revised to pool all resources state-wide, and distribute them evenly across the state. This approach is taken in several forms in several states.
While we strongly support and are willing to pay toward better K-12 education across the state, the dark side of equalization funding in New Mexico is that beyond providing minimal funding for all our state’s school districts, New Mexico takes the punitive hard-line position that wealthier districts are PROHIBITED from spending more on education than the formula provides. Educational equalization laws with this draconian feature are often called “Envy Laws”, because they prevent communities that value education and are willing to commit discretionary resource to it from doing so.
When New Mexico’s educational envy law was introduced, Los Alamos filed suit for relief, requesting to spend more on education than the system allowed. Los Alamos lost in court, with the court finding not that the law was reasonable or even good policy; but simply that the Governor and Legislature had the legitimate authority to enact it. In the wake of that courtroom loss, generations of community leaders have worked to creatively bridge the gap between our community’s high expectations for education and the declining resources available from the New Mexico funding pool.
First, the School District has become an enterprise, generating revenue from the lease of excess property, and that has helped to some extent. Second, community leaders were successful in arguing that quality public schools in Los Alamos were critical for recruiting and retention of the key scientific, technical, engineering, and management personnel needed to sustain the National Security Laboratory. Those arguments led to a special federal law that transfers a significant, fixed sum to the Los Alamos Schools each year, but without inflation adjustment.
These initiatives and actions by our community leaders stand as major accomplishments that merit recognition. But while this approach has sustained the quality of our schools to date, this approach has resulted in some very negative outcomes, and the approach does not provide a sustainable path forward.
As members of the community who considers quality education the unquestioned paramount priority for our local government, the aspect of this situation we find most bizarre is that state law results in a top priority being resource starved, while our non-educational county programs have floated on the rising tide of prosperity. We look forward to the renewed Ashley Pond; we’re sure the improved golf course will be great; Without a doubt, the new municipal building is splendid; and we’re delighted that many of the county employees who serve our peaceful village of 18,000 earn as much or significantly more than their counterparts who perform those duties for Albuquerque, or even in state-wide capacities. Our concern is that when it comes to our schools and its employees, we are suddenly poor.
Our sense is that Los Alamos has a strong cultural commitment to education. To us, the elements of that commitment should materialize through: low student-to-teacher ratios; extraordinary opportunities for student academic, cultural, and athletic enrichment; outstanding services for our student with special needs and special gifts; and, staff enrichment and compensation benchmarked to the most successful school districts in our nation, rather than to the New Mexico average. The State of New Mexico should embrace, rather than envy and obstruct those objectives. We would have those elements for all the schools in New Mexico, but if we can’t; we would still have them here.
We find it unacceptable that class sizes are rising, that enrichment programs are endangered, that special needs and gifted programs compete with funding for mainstream students, and that school staff are second-tier county employees, with classified staff earning significantly lower compensation than their direct peers in county positions, and with our most highly educated, creative, and effective teachers making less than low level county staff.
As the federal government has recognized, quality schools for Los Alamos are important to the health of the Laboratory. Consider that the skill set needed to operate and support the Laboratory is held by well under 1 percent of the population; and that the people holding those skills can find good work in any number of industries and locations. Then, for our particular circumstances, reduce that pool of prospective staff to reflect that not every highly skilled person can qualify for a high-level security clearance. Then, reduce it again to reflect that many people would prefer not to have a job that subjects them to the scrutiny that goes with maintaining a security clearance. Then, reduce our candidate pool again to drop out those who object to working in national security for ideological reasons.
Further, cut our pool to drop those who wish public credit and publication rights for their work, which are often restricted here. Then, shrink the candidate pool yet again to reflect those who are mindful of limited professional opportunities for a trailing spouse. Then, drop off the people who enjoy living in large metropolitan areas, or even those who just value diverse shopping and entertainment opportunities. What we have left is a tiny fraction of a miniscule pool of well qualified people who enjoy living in a safe, scenic, accomplished village with good public schools and abundant alpine recreational opportunities. For very many of us, quality public schools are the defining element that settle the question of whether Los Alamos is a good place, or a bad place for our families.
We see two opportunities for addressing this question.
First, our County Council should act immediately to absorb all possible costs that are now being borne by the school department; up to the absolute limit of discretion under current state law. Some progress has been made in this area, but much more can be done. School nurses could become county EMT or Health employees, materials and subscriptions for school libraries could become satellites of the of the county-funded library collection, school facilities and administrative functions could be taken over by the county and leased back to the schools on favorable terms, and school grounds could be subsumed by the county parks department. This avenue should be immediately and exhaustively pursued.
Second, our community should work though the Legislature and the Governor to amend the envy laws, so that local communities can override caps on educational spending by referendum, if they so choose. This type of “Home Rule” relief valve provision is common in states with funding cap laws, and is very often exercised year-in and year-out as an expression of local rights by communities that expect more services and that are willing to pay for them.
As the Governor and Legislature consistently recognize, Los Alamos is an engine for prosperity, regional growth and philanthropy in Northern New Mexico. Strong public schools, to our community standards, are central to the health of the golden goose that we are. It is not unreasonable to ask the state to let us spend our money on our priorities.