There are 24, 872 Las Cruces Public School District students enrolled by the most recent head count published on the LCPS website. The NMSU and Dona Ana College websites indicate there were a total combined 24,099 students enrolled in 2012. We have almost the same number of students in the public school system as in the higher education system. Today, the Dona Ana County Commissioners will meet to vote on a resolution against proposed changes to the state law that may be used to remove the benefit of the sales tax dollars going to the local public schools. Just so no one is confused, only half the students in the county are benefiting directly from the spaceport tax.
The citizens of Dona Ana County voted to tax themselves to support the establishment and operations of Spaceport America. In February of 2007, the County then passed Ordinance 227A-07 which states, “75% of the proceeds of this tax can go to the financing, planning, design, engineering and construction for the project…and the Governing Body may dedicate 25% to spaceport-related projects.” The intent of this tax was to keep the state from funding the ongoing operations of the spaceport. Governor Richardson made the voters choose to support the spaceport so the state would not have to support its operations on an ongoing basis. We have been supporting this public/private facility now since 2007. It was decided to use the funds for science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education for public school students. It is not clear who made this decision. Educating the workforce to help students learn and become prepared to work at the spaceport once it became operational was the intent and is a worthy goal.
NMSU got involved initially in the establishment of the spaceport in 1991 through Vice President Averett Tombes. It was at this time the state decided under Governor Johnson, to pursue establishment of an inland launch facility in New Mexico. The spaceport would be built primarily to support development of a reusable launch facility. Dr. Tombes asked me to help because of my work with NASA through New Mexico Space Grant. People who work in the space sector make on average twice what people in other sectors of the economy make. If we provide education that is competitive with other types of learning environments that are competing for students’ attention, we have a chance of an educated electorate. And a more affluent electorate. I have reported in this column many times about the hundreds of students who have designed, built, flown and analyzed their technologies that have gone to space. Many of our students work at NASA White Sands Test Facility and White Sands Missile Range, all have been lucky to attend school in Dona Ana County.
Every Executive Director of the spaceport has supported the educational launches New Mexico Space Grant has supported with NASA funds. It is important the electorate support our commissioners in their stance.
Right now, the way the spaceport tax dollars are being spent in the district is getting the attention of other educators and legislators in the state. The state already pays the district to teach STEM subjects. I can understand why a legislator might have questions. The ordinance was written to support spaceport related projects. Once we get through this challenge, the commissioners may examine the intent of the original ordinance.
In the last few weeks I have discussed the use of the spaceport tax for education with many people. Most are unwavering, they believe the portion of the tax meant to support education is a worthy cause. I have also noticed a protective stance taken by members of our community. We have made the investment, the spaceport is built, the district is delivering education to our students. Now people statewide want a piece of the success. We have flown student experiments from Albuquerque to Raton at the spaceport. Now they can invest like our community has done.
There are only 8 licensed spaceports in the United States. This is truly a unique facility we have just thirty miles up the road. Who can expect the first community in the union to ever build a commercial spaceport and to tax itself to educate its students to have an easy path? We are out in front here in Dona Ana and Sierra Counties. I’d like us to use this tax to educate all our students, those both in public schools, at DACC and NMSU. Education is our path to success and prosperity.