BY CELINA MORGAN
Members of the community have been writing to the Los Alamos Public Schools Board, writing to the papers, and sharing their concerns about the schools moving forward with the MOA for a large housing development on North Mesa. Many people have called me personally to express their frustration. This is my best attempt to summarize how the LAPS answers have not adequately addressed public concern. Really, the public just wants to know that these issues are being taken seriously. This a direct one-to-one response to the school’s “Myth Busters” on pages 77-78 of the final packet for tonight’s school board meeting.
Sadly, the unnamed author of the “Myth Busters” decided to call the public concerns, “fiction”. The only modification I have elected to make is to give the concerns the dignity they deserve by relabeling the school’s “fiction/fact” headings. The Summary of Public Rebuttal and Public notes are my words, in an attempt to best summarize what my neighbors in this community are expressing in their public comments to the board, and in their conversations with me. Thank you for the time, and I hope I can do these serious concerns justice here.
Q&A: Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) about North Mesa
Public Concern 1: The draft MOA, if signed, commits the School Board and County Council to move forward with a housing development on North Mesa.
LAPS Response: The MOA is simply a tool to inform the public and formally frame the conversation. It provides scope and conditions for any possible action. A similar MOA was used in developing the Smith’s property. One possible action is to leave the land ‘as is’ with no development. There is also a section in the MOA that, if needed, releases LAPS from the conversation and further planning.
Summary of Public Rebuttal: The public respondents understand the nature of the MOA. Respondents are concerned about the way this conversation has been framed in the MOA. They are concerned that the scope is not school focused. The public respondents want to know the exit gates and mechanism; what are the bars to exceed to engage in development vs. leave the land ‘as is’. How are the schools measuring the opportunity cost of the land to the schools if they pursue development instead of having land for expansion for potentially now-unknown needs? The public respondents are concerned that the expense of nearly half a million dollars by the county will create pressure to move forward, even if that decision is not the best decision for the schools.
Public Concern 2: The County has a consultant that will “be the provider of plans that may be in conflict with the goals and obligations of the schools”.
LAPS Response: All planning will be consistent with meeting the LAPS Strategic Plan. Summary of services to be provided by the County:
Summary of Public Rebuttal: The public respondents are making the point that the schools have not hired consultants to guide the schools both financially and legally. The LAPS response to this question confirms that they do not have representation and are in fact relying on the consultants hired by the county council to protect the school’s interest.
Public Concern 3: LAPS has not considered long-range planning for possible school expansion and room for additional students.
LAPS Response: LAPS has an up-to-date Facilities Master Plan with student enrollment projections.
Summary of Public Rebuttal: Thank you for pointing out the Facilities Master Plan which was developed for the years 2019-2023 (link: https://drive.google.com/drive/folders/1pzR2uVfJ-QjcORQFowHbZSNY6TBq7tGz)
I am certain the schools understand that the enrollment projections have only been studied through 2023 when discussing disposing of land. A housing development wouldn’t be completed before the current master plan expires. However, more importantly let’s look at the Facilities Master Plan (FMP), which confirms the public’s concerns.
FMP Sec 1.3.1 (page 28) paragraph 5: “The enrollment at LAPS has been increasing since the 2013-2014 school year. The current on-going and proposed housing projects could cause the enrollment to substantially increase in the next five years. This can cause the schools to reach or exceed their current capacity. Los Alamos Public Schools is tracking this trend and taking enrollment levels into consideration for future planning. The district is paying special attention to the elementary schools and the middle schools since the majority are already at capacity. A possible option for LAPS is to relocate 6th grade students into the middle school; however, this will remain as an on-going discussion item.”
Public Note: If the Los Alamos Schools build a high-density housing development, then they will be doing it before building required infrastructure to address the admitted capacity needs. This confirms the public concern that Barranca, Aspen, and Mountain cannot accommodate the influx of students in addition to current population shift.
Also Public Note: Actual locations of archaeological sites on property may limit where the schools can build a 6th grade wing at LAMS. Have the schools contacted the state regarding these sites and limitations it would place on both expansion and development?
FMP Sec 3.3.9 (page 174): Capital Improvements Plan Priorities list funding cycle plans in 2021 for developing plans for a 6th grade wing, and funding cycle plans in 2025 for its possible construction.
Public Note: When the public asked the schools about long-range planning, one of the specific concerns addressed the need create the 2021 plans for the 6th grade wing before considering land disposal or development on North Mesa. This is especially important now that the public has been made aware of seven archaeological sites on property.
FMP Sec 1.3.1 (page 29) paragraph 1: “State Mandated Pre-K: Los Alamos Public Schools provides pre-K education in two of its elementary schools: Pinon ES and Barranca Mesa ES. The plan of LAPS is to offer pre-K programs at all the elementary schools within the next five years. The state of New Mexico is working toward making pre-K education mandatory for all children. If pre-K is mandated, this will change the capacity needs of LAPS.”
Public Note: Barranca and Pinon offer Pre-K only to a limited number of students who qualify on IEPs or as peers. The programs and infrastructure will need to increase at all five schools.
FMP Sec 2.1.2 (page 34) para 1: “Los Alamos Public Schools would also like to expand some of its Special Education programs. The district is looking at incorporating a Living Skills program at Pinon Elementary, a Behavior Program at Aspen Elementary, and IELP (K-2) at Aspen Elementary and Pinon Elementary.”
Public Note: The schools have excellent priorities provided in this paragraph. Community members have been expressing concerns about the need to expand the Special Education programs. Some former residents have had to leave Los Alamos and relocate to other school districts in order to have adequate Special Education for their child.
Public Concern 4: State laws do not allow school districts to give teachers benefits such as housing.
LAPS Response: Many school districts in New Mexico provide reduced rate housing for teachers and other employees.
Summary of Public Rebuttal: Members of the community have specifically asked how the schools plan to ensure that housing will benefit teachers. To look at a historical context, of the 121 homes in Pinon Trails, only 13 were sold to LAPS staff with a subsidy loan. The average home ownership of income qualified buyers was for 12 years, at which point, homes could be sold at full market value, to the highest bidder (The Los Alamos Housing Partnership retained right of first refusal). Currently, 6 income qualified homes in the Pinon Trails development are owned by LAPS staff. So, the question still stands, in what way will the schools ensure that these homes are for teachers and staff? And what percentage of the homes are intended to be for teachers and staff?
Public Concern 5: “The School Board has not publicly, autonomously, discussed the MOA and housing development, apart from joint County sessions.”
LAPS Response: The School Board met on October 22, 2020 to independently review the draft MOA, draft questions and prepare for the October 29th meeting with the County Council.
Summary of Public Rebuttal: Members of the public have expressed concerns that the county was involved more quickly than the community. Members of the public were hoping for a well-advertised opportunity to listen to the school board discussion about the MOA. The agenda for the October 22, 2020 work session slipped past public notice. Considering the controversial nature of land development on school land, there needs to be heightened advertising of all stages in the process of pursuing it. Additionally, agendas are often released within 2-3 days of the meeting and there have been occasional technological problems with link access to the agendas, final packets and public comments. Members of the public have expressed gratitude that the school board has moved the discussion from the consent agenda of the November 10th meeting to have a full and advertised discussion on November 19th.
Public Concern 6: LAPS has not been seeking community input.
LAPS Response: The district has had multiple community input sessions, including a public meeting at the middle school to solicit input. Please see this document for a summary of the process.
Summary of Public Rebuttal: The exclamation that over 60 stakeholders were present at the February meeting does not represent public input. Many of those stakeholders were representatives of the county and schools. Covid-19 struck our state almost at the conclusion of the February meeting regarding development on North Mesa. At this time, covid-19 continues to make public discussion about the development challenging; many people have misconceptions about the plans and ideation the schools are pursuing. Many members of the public are eager to attend the school board work session tonight, and participate in the process. However, it is incredibly important to note that many parents are trying to adjust their schedules to both work and support the teaching of their children at home in a remote environment. There are parents who want to be involved and are not able because remote schooling is taxing both their time and energy.
Public Concern 7: The North Mesa property is going to be used as a one-time tradeoff for immaterial financial gain.
LAPS Response: The School Board does not plan to trade the land for immaterial financial gain and is seeking an arrangement that provides ongoing, long-term income to benefit the students of the district.
Summary of Public Rebuttal: The statement listed here as a concern was taken from a broader context. People have specifically asked the schools to enter a conversation with the county with the context of the money that they need to make, in a recurring capacity in order to make development financially beneficially and a priority for education. What’s the number for this? How much is the opportunity cost of the schools losing their last parcel of land worth? Put a number on that. What will it take for that land to be financially more worthwhile to the education of present and future Los Alamos students, than the opportunity that land already represents in its capacity to expand programs and initiatives for Los Alamos students? That was the question and that was context of the statement.
Public Concern 8: The County owns a significant amount of land that could be used for workforce housing.
LAPS Response: The County owns less than 30 acres of developable land.
Summary of Public Rebuttal: Thank you for this number. Does this represent all developable land or only developable land as zoned in a non-commercial capacity? Also, 30 acres is one acre more than the school is offering. The greater context is that members of the community have expressed concerns that it isn’t the “school’s job” to solve the housing problems. Why is the county willing to use more school land before using their land? The county should be seeking solutions on county land, and through exercising negotiations with LANL, before developing on school land.
Public Concern 9: The housing is being discussed to support LANL hiring.
LAPS Response: The recent (December 2019) Housing Market Analysis showed an immediate need for 1,700 units in addition to about 600 units currently in process; an important and growing need noted was attainable housing for those that make less than the local median income of $115,000. This impacts hiring and retention for our schools, businesses, health care professionals and other services in the community – in addition to LANL.
Summary of Public Rebuttal: Community members have expressed concerns that the salaries of LANL employees will eventually drive all privately-owned homes back to LANL employees in regards to the high market value of all property in Los Alamos. How can these be retained as affordable properties? Additional concerns are regarding the strategy of trying to profit while providing low income housing; some community members would like to know what that strategy is?