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September 19, 2014

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schools:

Cuts slice deeply into classrooms

Teachers, education programs are not spared in plan aimed at bringing budget in line

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Steve Marcus

Jessica Zack congratulates Coronado High School bowling teammate Joseph Mortero this week for scoring a strike in a contest with Silverado High School at South Point. The school district is planning cuts in athletics, but nothing specific has yet been announced.

Nearly every facet of Clark County’s public education system will feel the sting of upcoming budget cuts.

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The proposed cuts, obtained Wednesday by the Sun, show that reducing the School District’s operating budget by $120 million over the next biennium will lead to bigger classes, fewer extracurricular activities and layoffs.

Superintendent Walt Rulffes will outline the recommended cuts at tonight’s Clark County School Board meeting.

They “will have a lasting effect on many children,” Rulffes acknowledged Wednesday.

To save $27.1 million, school staffing will be reduced. The district has not identified the positions to be eliminated, but fewer staff members will inevitably result in larger class sizes, officials said.

Athletics and extracurricular activities will have 15 percent, or $1.7 million, less funding. That will most likely come through a reduced schedule of games for school sports teams.

A principals’ committee will also evaluate the feasibility of charging students an “activity fee” to raise revenue at individual campuses.

Sports and extracurricular programs topped the list of items the public said it wanted spared, according to data gathered by the district through surveys and town hall meetings. But district officials say given the dire financial straits, even the most popular programs cannot be given full protection.

“If parents are happy with this, then do nothing,” Rulffes said. “But if you’re not happy, tell your state leaders this is not acceptable.”

But some critics of the district have suggested the cut list is designed to anger parents and put pressure on lawmakers ahead of the legislative session.

District officials also expect strong public opposition to a plan to eliminate block scheduling, which allows high school students to take more electives.

At tonight’s meeting, district staff is scheduled to outline the pros and cons of block scheduling relative to its $11 million price tag. Some educators have questioned the equity of the initiative, as the district can afford to offer it only at 18 of its 59 high schools.

Gov. Jim Gibbons has called for education funding, along with the budgets of state agencies, to be reduced by 14 percent for the upcoming biennium.

The district has cut $130 million from its budget since December, canceling initiatives approved and funded by the 2007 Legislature, including an expansion of full-day kindergarten and school improvement grants.

Ruben Murillo, president of the Clark County Education Association, said the cuts will hurt student achievement and make it more difficult for teachers to do their jobs effectively. Many newer initiatives and programs the teachers union has fought for and won “have been taken away in the course of one year.”

The district is sinking “to the bottom of a big, black pit,” Murillo said. “It’s very sad to see, because it was completely avoidable.”

Other proposed cuts include the elimination of 261 positions at the district’s central and administrative offices, saving $17 million, along with $15 million from those offices’ operating expenses. The offices provide purchasing, human resources and other school support services.

A popular early retirement incentive program will also be suspended, saving $2.5 million.

The district will cut $6.8 million used to pay for 142 permanent substitute teachers. In exchange for being assigned to a specific campus and taking on classroom or support staff duties, as needed, the substitutes receive health benefits. Using short-term substitutes will eliminate the cost of the health benefits.

Also on the cut list is a teacher mentor program, which cost $2.7 million annually.

The program is “great,” said Martha Tittle, the district’s chief human resources officer. “But it’s also very expensive.”

There are other mentoring opportunities for teachers in the district, she said, but none that come with pay.

A question some at the district are contemplating is whether the momentum from the recent town hall meetings, which drew large crowds of vocal parents and educators, will carry over to the legislative session, when lawmakers will approve budgets containing proposed cuts.

The district has no ability to generate revenue, Rulffes noted. Control over school funding, from prekindergarten to higher education, rests with the governor and the Legislature.

The district has requested a bill draft for the session asking that a rainy-day fund be created for education. Such a fund, proponents say, could allow the district to weather an economic downturn without deep budget cuts.

“We need fiscal sustainability in the long term to avoid a repeat of this kind of social cannibalism,” the superintendent said.

Murillo said the teachers union is bracing for a fight in Carson City. Of particular concern is the governor’s announcement Tuesday that he plans to eliminate step pay increases for public workers, including teachers.

Although the union recognizes that some cuts are unavoidable, it has no plans to cede ground on any benefits that are part of a negotiated contract, Murillo said.

“Our voices will be heard,” he said. “We’re not going to stand around and do nothing.”

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