School Board Passes Budget that Reflects Community Standards for Class Size

By Save Our Schools Los Alamos

The Los Alamos Public School Board recently authorized a $37.9 million budget for the 2014-2015 school year.  This increase of $1.3 million over last year’s budget came directly from funding provided by the State of New Mexico, a development we wrote about in this column during the Legislative session.

Save Our Schools Los Alamos is an informal group that organized nine months ago after we were surprised to learn – on the first day of school — that K-12 funding shortfalls would result in unusually large class sizes of up to 28 students in several early elementary school classes.  At that time, we were advised that large class sizes would be the new norm as the compound effect of annual funding shortfalls were expected to ripple through the school system in coming years.  We disagreed with acceptance of large class sizes, and as we examined school financing in more detail we also became more concerned about the adequacy of staff compensation and about other school financing issues.

We’ve published 18 articles under the Education 101 column on The Los Alamos Daily Post that focused on K-12 education funding – where it comes from, why Los Alamos gets what it gets, and how funding issues are impacting the quality of K-12 education in Los Alamos; specifically in terms of larger class sizes and teacher compensation that is well below what our peer communities pay.

In particular, Save Our Schools Los Alamos argued that the Los Alamos Public Schools needed to hire more teachers to address unacceptably large class sizes at some of the elementary schools, using local funding to supplement the state allotment if necessary.  We’ve discussed this issue many times with Superintendent Schmidt and with members of the School Board.  Our proposed strategy focused on the understanding that small class sizes are a central expectation of the community.  Indeed, the 2011 Community Survey conducted by the School Board ranked small class size as the #1 priority across all constituents, including parents and teachers.

There are a number of challenges and competing priorities facing our schools, and they’re made more difficult to explore by a state-driven funding scheme that is moderately complex and that is poorly understood even by attentive professionals within the schools.  We’ve discussed ideas for overhauling the budget process with school leaders and encouraged them to provide the public with more complete and actionable information about school finances, budgeting, and other key decisions.  The Los Alamos League of Women Voters has also taken up this issue and is working on a study that is expected to provide valuable advice to the schools in this area.  We’re hoping that these efforts can lead to a dramatically more transparent and more useful budget process for the next fiscal year and better communication generally between the school district and the public.

The good news this year is that the members of the School Board and Dr. Schmidt found a way to do the right thing.  This past week, the Board decided to hire additional teachers at Aspen and Barranca Elementary Schools and at the Middle School to address class room crowding.  Although Mountain Elementary is also crowded, the facility is at capacity and there will be an attempt to address class size there by rebalancing faculty among the grades.

While these very positive steps don’t provide an optimal outcome, we want to thank the School Board and Dr. Schmidt for publicly evaluating and addressing these concerns proactively, while steps – like hiring additional teachers – are still possible.  Last year and in the past, the practice was to wait until the first day of school and then announce that it was too late to take action to address class size, so this year’s approach is a dramatic improvement and it will produce a substantially better outcome for the students, families, and teachers involved.

We’d also like to thank the School Board and Dr. Schmidt on a much broader level.  Over the past school year we’ve been asking difficult questions, questioning established processes and ideas, and generally asking people to step out of their comfort zones to rethink how we manage the very important community priority of K-12 education.  We’ve tried to do this in a respectful and collaborative way, but change is often difficult.  It’s been gratifying to see that every single person we’ve come into contact with in the School Administration, on the School Board, and on the School Budget Committee has been deeply dedicated to quality education in Los Alamos.  There have been different ideas about how to achieve quality education, and different ideas about which constraints are real and which are artificial; but all the participants have been well-intentioned and sincere.

We believe that the very act of holding robust, open discussions on these issues has resulted in progress, and we believe that by continuing in this manner, additional progress is inevitable.

In closing, we’d like to offer a final word of thanks to the members of the Los Alamos School Board.  These uncompensated volunteers are expected to master a vast range of complex subject matters.  They are expected to produce outcomes in situations where they often have little authority or control over inputs.  And, they are expected to satisfy competing stakeholders in a tightly constrained environment. Their dedication and commitment to the community and to public education warrant our respect and thanks.

To learn more about K-12 education funding issues and Save Our Schools Los Alamos, go to http://soslosalamos.com.

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