Monday, Nov. 3, 2008 | 2 a.m.
There’s a fine line between preparing for the worst and conceding defeat.
Anticipating the state will require that they make deep spending cuts over the next two years, Clark County School District officials are looking for ways to trim $120 million from their budget. Principals have begun meeting with parents to hear their ideas. The process increases the odds that the most important programs will be spared, district officials say.
But representatives of the teachers union disagree with the district’s approach, fearing state lawmakers might misinterpret all the talk of cuts as evidence the district has money to spare.
“Until the Legislature meets and tells the people of Nevada, ‘We couldn’t get the job done,’ we will not presume the worst,” said John Jasonek, executive director of the Clark County Education Association. “We are not in the business of pitting all kinds of people against one another. It’s a popular politicians’ game they’ve all gotten really good at playing.”
The district has settled on cuts of $32 million to its administrative budget, including the elimination of 261 employees.
Additional, and more controversial, cuts being discussed by the district include:
•Eliminating teacher preparation time, a 45-minute period during the work day to review lessons and correct homework. It would save nearly $103 million.
• Ending block scheduling at 17 high schools for a saving of $11 million. Under block scheduling — it allows students to take eight classes instead of the traditional six, leaving more room for electives — classes meet for longer periods on staggered days.
• Cutting $57 million from campus budgets, equaling 3.5 percent of each school’s spending.
• Canceling school sports, for a saving of $6.3 million.
• Getting rid of librarians at the middle and high school level for $9.5 million.
• Increasing class sizes in grades 1-3, saving $15.6 million for each student added to the grade-level average ratio.
“There are no sacred cows here,” said Jim McIntosh, the district’s deputy chief financial officer. “We want people to see exactly where the money is going, and that means leaving nothing out.”
However, Superintendent Walt Rulffes acknowledged that some of the cuts are unlikely to happen. For example, it’s enticing to imagine the district solving 86 percent of its budget shortfall with a single chop of the ax, ending teacher prep time. But doing so would likely cause more harm than good, Rulffes said.
“Anyone who has spent 6.5 hours in a classroom can see the value of prep time,” Rulffes said. “It’s a real benefit for our teachers and the district as a whole.”
However, the cost of prep time has left many people stunned. The price tag equals salaries and benefits for just more than 1,900 full-time employees.
But the teachers union has no intention of giving up what many educators argue is a necessity.
“I know the district had to put every big-ticket item on the table, but it’s not a ticket we’re going to cash,” Jasonek said. “That’s an issue that would have to go to arbitration, and the district would never prevail.”
Prep time makes room in the schedule for elementary school students to take music, art and physical education classes. At the middle and high school levels, some teachers in hard-to-fill subject areas “sell” their prep periods back to the district and teach an extra class. Students get a highly qualified teacher instead of a long-term substitute.
Teachers told the Sun they often use their prep time to return phone calls from parents, meet with students and keep up with paperwork.
Block scheduling might not have as many defenders.
Edward Goldman, an associate superintendent and a candidate for the District A seat on the School Board, said it should be cut. There’s no proof it has any effect on student achievement, he said.
Block scheduling lets students graduate with as many as 32 credits, 10 more than required. That means more opportunities to take accelerated classes and electives “that enhance the high school experience,” said Rancho High School Principal Bob Chesto, who implemented the schedule switch four years ago.
It also makes it easier for students to repeat a class they’ve failed without having to wait for summer school.
If it were cut, Chesto said, many teachers and students would be disappointed, but the school would survive.
“Is it going to be a loss? Yes,” Chesto said. “Is it going to be horribly painful for us? Probably not.”
Last week, principals began meeting with staff and parents to review the list and prioritize what they want protected, and what they might be willing to give up.
More than 250 Rancho parents turned out for the budget discussion, 10 times the turnout of a typical monthly meeting. Chesto, who runs one of the district’s largest high schools with 3,700 students, said he will need to cut at least $500,000 from his budget.
“It’s an awful, horrible conversation to have,” said Chesto, who met with parents for more than two hours on Oct. 20. “No one wants to cut anything. At the same time, everyone knows we probably won’t have a choice.”
Parents adamantly opposed cutting sports, and many viewed block scheduling as critical to the success of Rancho’s top-ranked magnet programs.
Inviting the school community to scrutinize the budget has been a valuable exercise, said McIntosh, the district’s deputy chief financial officer. Last week, at Lamping Elementary School in Henderson, McIntosh listened as parents asked whether the campus needed a counselor at an average cost (salary and benefits) of $80,000, and whether three custodians (each costing $45,000) were necessary.
This isn’t the first time in recent years the district has been forced to make steep budget cuts, including $130 million in the past nine months. But McIntosh said he’s seen a shift in the public’s attitude.
“This time, they’re on our side,” McIntosh said. “Everyone’s feeling the pain of the challenging economy, and they understand the district is going through it as well.”