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As Federal Subsidies Wane, 'Secret City' Looks to the Future

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For more than half a century, the federal government has funneled millions of dollars each year into the high desert community of Los Alamos, N.M., and its public schools.

The reason? To sustain top-quality schools that would enable the government to recruit scientists to the federal laboratory that once housed World War II's biggest secret: the Manhattan Project. Los Alamos was created with the single purpose of building the first atomic bomb.

But the goal of federal officials is eventually to wean Los Alamos and its schools from the subsidies and create a self-sufficient community. ("At School in the Secret City," April 10, 1996.)

This week, that goal faces a crucial test as Los Alamos holds a $14 million bond election--only the second such vote in the 3,700-student district's history.

To Superintendent James Anderson, it's a very real symbol of increased self-sufficiency. "Hopefully, this will wind up being a successful demonstration of our community taking charge of what's in our stewardship," he said last week.

Moving to Independence

Los Alamos is definitely a community in transition. To this day, the town is dominated by the Los Alamos National Laboratory, the modern-day extension of the scientific lab established in 1943, run by physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer.

Street names in the "secret city" perched atop a 7,000-foot-high mesa include Oppenheimer and Trinity drives. The federal government built most of the schools and, until 1950, ran the school system.

The U.S. Department of Energy, which contracts with the University of California system to run the lab, is settling up with the county government, which has received close to $3 million a year. Federal officials last year negotiated a final payment of nearly $18 million and have begun the process of transferring land and utilities to Los Alamos County.

But moving schools off the federal dole has proved trickier, said Paul Dickman, an Energy Department special assistant involved in the process.

For one thing, the U.S. government supplies a larger chunk of the district's budget than the county's. The roughly $8 million subsidy makes up a third of the district's annual budget.

And, in the name of equity, New Mexico tightly controls how much communities can tax themselves to support their schools. As a result, Los Alamos and its relative affluence have become a frequent target in the state legislature.

So the U.S. Congress has approved a plan whereby the Los Alamos schools would continue to receive federal support until 2003.

The idea is ultimately to end the schools' yearly payments from Washington and let an education and community development foundation created last year pick up the slack. Though the Energy Department has committed roughly $25 million over five years as an endowment for the Los Alamos National Laboratory Foundation, private contributors are expected to sustain the fund.

In the past, the department's arrangement with Los Alamos has engendered resentment among surrounding communities, which also feed the lab its nearly 10,000 employees. So the foundation's beneficiaries are expected to include up to 30 districts spread across northern New Mexico.

By summer, the Santa Fe-based foundation is expected to give out $2 million in grants. Of that, $1 million will be in the form of "enrichment grants" to districts besides Los Alamos, based on how many lab employees live within their boundaries, said Susan Herrera, the foundation's executive director. And the foundation has received more than 200 applications for $1 million in competitive grants, Ms. Herrera said.

Boosting Equity

The unique support of Los Alamos has been a source of tension in a relatively poor state.

Some area districts have lost teachers to Los Alamos, which offers better pay. And as a predominantly Anglo community, Los Alamos sticks out like a sore thumb in a region that is mostly Hispanic and American Indian.

"It'll take a while for those feelings to go away," said Jimmy Rodriguez, the assistant superintendent of the nearby 5,100-student Espa¤ola district, where three out of four students are eligible for free or reduced-priced meals. "But if this foundation grows, it'll have some real impact up here."

And Los Alamos residents are hoping their bond election this week will also have an impact. The community's history shows in its school buildings, most of which date to the 1950s and are in need of modernization, Mr. Anderson said. Over the next 12 years, the district expects to ask voters for a total of $22 million.

The last time the district needed to hold a bond election--a more common occurrence in other New Mexico communities--was in 1983. The high school needed a new heating system because the steam heat it had been buying from the lab was drying up.

Most officials interviewed last week said they expected the March 24 bond proposal to pass in a place whose voters are among the most highly educated in the country.

"I'd think the community with the highest concentration of Ph.D.s in the nation would recognize the importance of education and approve this," said Jeri Hertzman, the school board president. "I expect it of this community."

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