Las Vegas Sun

September 21, 2014

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looking in on: EDUCATION:

Raises could become hot potato

The district relied on the Legislature, which might rescind the authorization

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Leila Navidi

Graduates are told by Robert Henry, School District director of adult education, to raise their hands and pat themselves on the back during a ceremony Thursday.

Talk of reducing or eliminating funding for Clark County School District employees’ cost-of-living raises has district officials more than a little worried.

On June 26, the School Board is to approve contracts with the teachers union and the administrators union, both of which contain the 4 percent pay hike authorized by the Legislature. The board has approved its new contract with support employees.

The cost of the raises totals $61.7 million, and if the state funding is eliminated during the looming special legislative session, the district could be on the hook for the money.

“We negotiated in good faith that the money would be there,” said Jeff Weiler, chief financial officer for the district.

The problem is, of course, that the district doesn’t have the money, he said.

The district’s regulations require that 2 percent of its operating budget be kept in an emergency reserve, but that amounts to only $42 million.

If the School Board doesn’t approve the contract, citing budget constraints, it will infuriate the employees who were counting on that money, Clark County Schools Superintendent Walt Rulffes wrote in a memo Friday to the School Board. But if the raises are approved, “future budget cuts will be more difficult,” Rulffes said.

The mere possibility of the raises being rescinded is bad for teacher recruitment efforts, which are kicking into high gear now for the upcoming academic year.

“I don’t think there’s any question that one would pause and reflect on whether they would really want to come to an environment where they face not only a loss of financial support, but the loss of a job,” Rulffes told the Sun.

When asked whether he thinks applicants really are staying on top of the latest news about financial woes of the state and the district via the Internet, Rulffes laughed and said: “We would be disappointed if a teacher wasn’t perceptive enough to check that out.”

•••

When it comes to the health and welfare of its children, Nevada ranks 36th nationally, slipping three spots since last year, according to a new report.

The annual Kids Count survey, funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation of Baltimore, was released Thursday.

Nevada babies born with low birth weights, often a precursor of future problems, increased by 15 percent from 2000 to 2005, ranking the state at 27th. The state also saw an 8 percent increase in children living in poverty.

There’s still “quite a bit of work to be done,” said Keith Schwer, executive director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at UNLV, and the state’s Kids Count coordinator.

Nevada is seeing an increased demand for social services, particularly for its youngest residents, Schwer said.

“Even during what would be considered normal economic times, there’s still a need,” Schwer said. “Unfortunately, Nevada is not a state that has put a lot of money toward those purposes.”

The latest rounds of budget cuts won’t help any, Schwer said.

There was some good news. Since 2000, Nevada has reduced its high school dropouts by 38 percent, but still ranks 47th nationally. Nevada has also reduced the number of teens ages 16 to 19 who aren’t working or in school by 31 percent over the same period. But that wasn’t enough to keep the Silver State out of 46th place.

•••

The graduates of the School District’s adult education program had one final exam to pass Thursday before they could walk the stage at the Thomas & Mack Center.

Robert Henry, the program’s director, announced he had gotten permission from the state to require one more proficiency test before handing out the diplomas.

It’s a physical fitness test, he told the students.

There were a few worried students in the crowd, all of whom had passed the math, reading and writing proficiency exams required by the state for graduation.

Henry told everyone to raise his or her right hand, palm facing inward.

Now bend your arm, and give yourselves a big pat on the back, Henry instructed.

The worried looks dissolved into grins as laughter and applause erupted through the audience.

“It’s important to remember,” Henry said, “that you didn’t give up on yourselves.”

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