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August 27, 2014

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School district: If you must cut the budget, do it our way

Officials say it won’t be easy, but teacher pay cuts can be avoided, layoffs minimized

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jummel hidrosollo / special to the las vegas sun

Students and advocates speak out on budget cuts last week during a rally sponsored by Nevadans for Quality Education at Valley High School. Clark County School District officials say they hope slowed enrollment growth and attrition over the summer will minimize the number of layoffs that budget cuts will require.

Education Rally

Students and advocates voice opinions on budget cuts during the Nevadans for Quality Education rally Monday at Valley High School. Launch slideshow »

Clark County School District officials say they are cautiously optimistic they won’t be asked to make budget cuts deeper than the $120 million already asked for by state leaders.

At the same time, Jeff Weiler, the district’s chief financial officer, said the staff positions, programs and services on the chopping block “represent very tough choices.”

The district tried to protect school-level jobs by first trimming administrative and central office costs and staff, Weiler wrote in a memo to all employees last week. “But given the severity of the cuts we likely face, that was not possible.”

The hope is slower enrollment growth and employee attrition and retirement over the summer will minimize the number of layoffs necessary.

Weiler also sought to reassure employees that the district is “very committed to maintaining competitive salaries and benefits,” despite Gov. Jim Gibbons’ call for a 6 percent pay cut for teachers and state workers. Gibbons also wants to freeze step or merit salary increases, and have employees pay their own health benefit costs.

The governor’s proposal “is not, in fact, in addition to the above-listed $120 million in budget reductions,” Weiler wrote. “Rather, it represents a different way to achieve the same level of budget reductions.”

In an interview with the Sun, Weiler confirmed that if employee salaries were cut by 6 percent, step increases were eliminated and the district’s share of health care benefit costs reduced, the savings would come close to $120 million.

However, Weiler said, the district doesn’t believe it could take that action because employee pay and benefits are protected by a negotiated agreement.

Superintendent Walt Rulffes told the Sun even if the district could break the agreement, he wouldn’t support reducing teacher salaries. He said, however, that the district is in discussions with the three bargaining groups — representing licensed personnel, administrators and support staff — for alternative savings.

“It could be reduced health care benefits, it could be some revision in how step increases are scheduled,” Rulffes said. “It’s a long shot, but there’s always a possibility.”

•••

If Nevada wants to improve its public schools, the Silver State should look to Florida.

That’s the conclusion of a new report by the Nevada Policy Research Institute, a conservative think tank.

Entitled “Failure is No Longer an Option,” the report details the academic gains of Florida students since a series of school reforms was implemented in 1998.

The Sunshine State’s student demographics are similar to Nevada’s, with high minority populations and children from low-income households. The states spend close to the same amount per pupil and average teacher salaries are comparable, according to the study.

Changes in Florida included increased standards and accountability, allowing parents to move their children from failing schools to more successful campuses and merit pay for teachers. There was also an intensive focus on literacy, including hiring reading coaches, retraining teachers and remedial instruction.

Thirty-seven percent of Florida’s low-income fourth graders demonstrated proficiency on a national standardized exam in 1998. In 2007, that figure had climbed to 59 percent.

By comparison, 42 percent of all Nevada fourth graders, regardless of socioeconomic status, demonstrated proficiency on the same exam in 2007.

Gains were equally impressive for Florida’s Hispanic students, who also outscored all of their Nevada peers on the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress.

“Some like to use a high-minority student population as an excuse for not doing well,” said Patrick Gibbons, education policy analyst for NPRI and the study’s co-author. “Florida proves that with comprehensive reform you can improve.”

Gibbons said the education reform plan put forth by Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford, D-Las Vegas, which includes merit pay for teachers, is “getting people talking about reform in different ways, beyond demanding an increase in per pupil spending.”

•••

Instructional supplies are at a premium in Clark County schools.

A new joint venture between the Public Education Foundation and the Harrah’s Foundation will offer teachers a cost-free option for keeping their classrooms well stocked.

The Teacher Exchange, funded with a $708,000 grant from Harrah’s Entertainment, will hold its grand opening Monday inside a warehouse (donated by Czarnowski Exhibit Services) at 3165 Sunset Road, near Dean Martin Boulevard. Community businesses and people can donate new supplies, used office equipment and computers.

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