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September 19, 2014

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Rogers boils over

Chancellor says governor wounds education, won’t return his calls

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LAS VEGAS SUN

Frustrated by pending budget cuts to education, University System Chancellor Jim Rogers unleashed a fiery tirade Thursday over Nevada’s tax policy and a governor who he says hasn’t returned his phone calls in five months.

Rogers said in an interview that he and Clark County Schools Superintendent Walt Rulffes are just “rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic” as Nevada education sinks from lack of funding caused by bad tax policy.

Instead of looking forward and trying to find long-term solutions to the state’s education woes, he said, Gov. Jim Gibbons is hiding behind an unthinking pledge not to raise taxes — a pledge that translates into budget cuts across public education.

“His position is we’re stuck with the money in the bank and he’s not going to do anything to tax, beg, borrow or steal,” Rogers told the Sun. “This governor is so inflexible he won’t consider a short-term fix. Without a short-term fix, we’re looking at long-term destruction.”

Forcing the state’s public colleges and universities to raise tuition, or eliminating popular degree programs, will only drive top students to cheaper schools in neighboring states. And once those kids leave, “they never come back,” Rogers said. “We’re talking about something that is going to cripple us financially and competitively. The effects will be felt on our economy for the next 50 to 100 years.”

Although Rogers issued a five-page memo to the Board of Regents detailing specific programs that will suffer from the cuts (which he compares to amputating a person’s limbs so he can survive on less food) the clear message was unspoken: Rogers is powerless to stop the budget surgery. His comments amounted to frustration over his inability to carry out the vision he had for higher education when he volunteered in 2004 to serve unpaid as chancellor.

“The employees we have here have done a good job, the regents have done a good job, and we’re still farther behind than we were five years ago,” Rogers said. “It’s discouraging for the whole state.”

Rogers recalled that he opposed Gibbons’ candidacy for governor in 2006 but was assured by the candidate’s most influential adviser, Sig Rogich, that Gibbons cared about education.

In reality, “the governor is supportive of education as long as it doesn’t cost anything,” Rogers said. “That’s an easy promise to keep.”

Compounding his frustration is the lack of communication with the governor’s office. Rogers said he has left numerous messages since the budget cuts were announced in December, offering his help. He said he has yet to hear back from Gibbons.

On a Saturday night in April, Rogers was at home watching a boxing match as the camera panned the crowd and caught a few familiar faces. “I turned to my wife on the couch and said, ‘Isn’t that the governor sitting in the front row?’ ” Rogers recalled. “He has time to go to the fight, but he can’t call the chancellor of (higher) education.”

Although Rogers’ memo details the dire straits of the state’s higher education system, he includes grades K-12 in his concerns. The Clark County School District accounts for 70 percent of the state’s student enrollment, and Rogers said he and Rulffes “are in exactly the same boat. We share the same pipeline — their students are our students.”

In an interview later Thursday, Rulffes said the memo conveyed “the same profound frustration that I feel. We are trying so hard to meet the demands and expectations of the community, but all the forces are working against us.”

Rulffes has had his own troubles getting answers directly from the governor’s office about the budget cuts, and often finds himself relying on secondhand accounts and media reports for the latest information.

Cuts to social services, health care and other important parts of the state budget are also troubling, Rulffes said. Students often struggle academically when basic needs go unmet, but the School District gets blamed when student performance falls short, he said.

“It’s easier at the governor’s level to just say to cut the dollars,” Rulffes said. “And leave the dirty work to Jim and me.”

Last week, the Clark County School Board approved a $2.7 billion operating budget for the 2009 fiscal year, which reflects the 4.5 percent reduction in education funding ordered by Gibbons in December. Gibbons has since told the Clark County School District to expect to cut another 14 percent from its operating budgets for 2010 and 2011, amounting to more than $100 million.

At that point, the district will have no choice but to eliminate staff and vital services, Rulffes said.

And that’s where the analogy in the Rogers memo, though painful, is all too appropriate, Rulffes said.

“We will literally be cutting off our limbs,” Rulffes said. “When that happens, it’s very difficult to survive.”

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