School District Budget Discussions Underway

LAPS CFO John Wolfe speaks to the audience at the School Board Budget Discussion held Wednesday at the Topper Theater. Photo by Bonnie J. Gordon/
Los Alamos Daily Post

Los Alamos Public Schools CFO John Wolfe presented a budget overview at the School Board Budget Discussion Wednesday night in the Topper Theater at Los Alamos High School.

The purpose of the meeting was to present a preliminary budget overview and gather input from the community and from school staff.

The budget picture looks a bit brighter than last year for the Los Alamos Public School District, Wolfe said. The State Equalization Guarantee Distribution (SEG), which represents the funds the State of New Mexico gives to the district will increase by $ 1.316 million this year to $26,248 million for fiscal year 2015. SEG represents around 90 percent of school funding statewide.

Other income sources for the District include $8 million from the Department of Energy and lease income from property owned by the District. Figures for available lease income were not yet available for 2015, but last year’s lease income amounted to more than $3 million.

The bad news came in the form of increased expenses. A sate mandated six percent wage increases for educational assistants will cost the District $121,477 and a three percent increase for other staff $791,000. Insurance premiums will increase by $173,135, medical insurance premiums (LAPS share) will increase by $57,120, utility rates will increase by $48,400, and ERB (Education Retirement Board) costs to the district will increase by $183,148.

Other increases include stipends to teachers who became National Board Certified after the state reporting deadline in the amount of $50,472. Teacher stipends for teachers to the state are paid by the State, however the district wants to compensate all teachers. The District is not yet sure if State mandated Reads to Lead program costs will be paid in full or partially by the state or by the District. If the must pay for them all, the cost will be $45,472.

Although the District carries over approximately $750,000 each year, around 1.6 percent of its budget, Wolfe explained that in order to maintain the District’s bond rating, the District must have a substantial cushion for unexpected expenses. Audience members questioned whether such a large amount is truly necessary as a cushion.

These costs leave a budget shortfall of $75,175 to be paid from District lease funds.

There are other costs, however, Wolfe pointed out. These include professional development, the search for a new superintendent, National Board Certification training, the teacher Master’s Program instituted by the District this year, dual credit costs not covered by the State, summer school and others, amounting to approximately $280,000.

A major cost is the transportation shortfall created by a drop in bus ridership of around 300 students. Wolfe and his staff estimate the shortfall will cost the district approximately $400,000, although figures are not yet available from the state.

These costs would amount to approximately $680,175 to be paid from lease funds.

Prior to the recession which began some six years ago, and major cuts in State funding, the District did not spend into lease funds, but saved them for possible serious budget shortfalls, such as major decreases in DOE funding. The fund currently contains $6.5 million, Wolfe said.

“Using lease funds meant we didn’t have to lay people off or end programs we wanted to fund,” Wolfe said.

The discussion then turned to class size. Barranca Mesa and Mountain Elementary second grade classes numbered 25 to 27 students last year and without changes, those students will be in similar-sized third-grade classes, according to data compiled by Assistant Superintendent Gerry Washburn.

“This is important to parents because large class size follows the students,” said Laura Loy, the mother of a Barranca second grader.

Washburn said the District could handle, “a teacher or two here and there,” but setting a firm goal of 20 students per class was not feasible financially. He suggested setting smaller class size goals for K-3 and somewhat larger ones for 4-6 grades.

Board Member Jim Hall suggested that, “we don’t use a hard and fast number” Hall suggested setting aside money to address specific situations as they arise, being guided by the elementary school principals.

Board Vice-president Kevin Honnell disagreed. “A hard number would give parents peace of mind,” he said. Honell suggested that exceptions to the numbers would have to be discussed and voted on in a public meeting.

Issues such as available classrooms and guaranteeing newly hired teachers will be employed more than a single year, were raised during the discussion.

The class size discussion was driven by falling enrollment numbers within the District, which means few funds available from the State.

Since the Cold War period, the District has lost about 2,000 students, Hall said. Over the past 10 years it has lost 800-900 students.

Hall said he had heard that Los Alamos National Laboratory will lay off 200 full-time employees this year.

“We have to be conservative and careful,” Hall said.

Budget discussions will continue at the Special School Board meeting at 5 p.m. today in the Piñon Elementary School Library.

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