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November 20, 2014

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Prospect of millions for school programs fades with budget woes

This week was supposed to be about good news for the Clark County School District, with Superintendent Walt Rulffes announcing the expansions of the popular full-day kindergarten and empowerment schools pilot programs.

At Tuesday’s news conference, Rulffes was expected to announce that by shifting state funding from other areas, $3 million could be used to add 15 full-day kindergarten classes. Another $3 million would allow another four to six campuses to join the eight schools already in the empowerment schools pilot program. Principals at empowerment schools have more control over daily operations and receive extra per-pupil funding in exchange for greater accountability.

But with whispers of a worsening economic outlook for the state growing ever louder, Rulffes canceled the briefing Monday afternoon.

“There was no official word, but we were hearing rumors that revenues were going to be below even what was projected,” Rulffes said. “It seemed prudent to wait.”

So instead of fielding questions from reporters, Rulffes was doing the asking — in a hastily scheduled meeting with Gov. Jim Gibbons, who was in Las Vegas for Tuesday’s dedication of the new Robert Forbuss Elementary School.

Rulffes met for about an hour with the governor, who is expected to announce Monday where he intends to make further cuts. Rulffes said he told Gibbons that if the School District loses additional funding, programs and services directly affecting students will likely suffer.

“We don’t know if we will be protected or not,” Rulffes said. “I got no assurances either way. The governor was careful not to make any commitments.”

The state’s 17 superintendents were taken aback in mid-December when Gibbons backed off his promise to protect their schools from looming cuts. Instead, he called for a 4.5 percent reduction to

K-12 funding statewide, which amounted to $63 million in Clark County. With statewide revenue now expected to be down nearly $800 million instead of $500 million, that could cost the School District another $30 million to $50 million, Rulffes said. One of the fastest ways to trim the district’s budget — and one guaranteed to infuriate parents and teachers — is to increase class sizes. Raising class sizes by an average of just one student saves the district about $12 million. Although state law protects smaller class sizes for grades 1-3, the district has had little luck in reducing crowding for kindergartners and older students.

The district tries to keep class sizes at 24 to 28 students per teacher, depending on the grade level and the subject area. But in some classrooms numbers have climbed past the mid-30s, particularly in middle and high schools.

Although there is no magic number for class size as a predictor of academic success, many researchers advocate no more than 17 students per teacher. Several studies have found student achievement drops sharply in classes with more than 24 students. Since 1999, when the national average class size was 25 students, the federal government has provided funding to schools with an aim of reducing the ratio to 18 students per teacher in kindergarten through third grade.

Several times in recent years the district has announced plans to trim class sizes, but funding shortfalls have made it impossible to follow through.

This time around, Rulffes said, he will resist increasing class sizes, but it still “may likely be a consideration.”

Rulffes said it’s a personal frustration to have to consider such measures, given that reducing class sizes has been one of his goals since being appointed superintendent more than two years ago.

It wouldn’t exactly thrill his faculty, either.

Oversized classes lead to teacher burnout and are “terrible for the children,” said Mary Ella Holloway, president of the Clark County Education Association. “To make them even larger seems criminal.”

To trim $63 million from its share of state funding, the district gave up $46 million intended for “one-shot” initiatives, including additional full-day kindergarten classes and improvement grants awarded to individual campuses. The remaining budget cuts will be achieved by putting off implementation of a new software system ($4 million) and canceling orders for $9 million worth of new school buses. A hiring freeze for central office administrative vacancies will save another $1.6 million.

The Clark County School Board is scheduled to vote tonight on whether to suspend an early retirement incentive program for employees that costs the district about $2 million annually.

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