Las Vegas Sun

September 15, 2014

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Recession hits charter parents two ways

At two schools, some can no longer play key roles

Walt Rulffes

Walt Rulffes

The economy is taking different tolls on a pair of Las Vegas charter schools.

In one case, enrollment is down because financially struggling parents can no longer afford to drive their children to school from across town.

In the other — a distance-education program in which students work at their own pace via home computers — some financially struggling stay-at-home parents have had to take jobs, meaning they can no longer stay home to supervise their children’s learning.

Innovations International Charter School, which like the rest of Clark County’s eight charter schools does not provide transportation, lost about 50 students whose parents could no longer afford to drive them to the campus on East Oakey Boulevard.

“They were coming from all over the valley,” Innovations Principal Connie Malin said. “We’ve had some parents who lost their jobs. Others had shift changes at work and can’t do the driving anymore.”

Still, Innovations’ enrollment is up 63 students overall, to 771, with waiting lists in all grades K-12. Malin has begun calling names off the waiting list, even though the charter school won’t get funding for the additional pupils (the state’s cutoff date was Sept. 18). First priority will go to siblings of current Innovations students, Malin said.

At Odyssey Charter School, where the academic program is centered on online classes with weekly face-to-face interaction with teachers, elementary and middle school enrollment is at a five-year low of 525, down from 658 last year. The high school has 798 students, up from 772 last year.

Odyssey prefers its younger students have family supervision, and teachers make weekly home visits in grades K-8. Some students were withdrawn from the school because the supervising parent needed to go to work, Principal Michele Robinson said.

•••

The School District would have laid off an estimated 1,100 employees were it not for the $82.2 million it received from the federal stimulus package, Superintendent Walt Rulffes said.

The money, allocated for the 2009 fiscal year, made up for the reduction in sales tax revenue and offset reduced funding from the state, Rulffes said in a letter to Nevada’s lawmakers.

No such rescue is on the district’s horizon for the upcoming fiscal year, because lawmakers determined the “state stabilization funds” would go exclusively to higher education in 2010.

There will likely be reduced funding on another front. School districts are given an extra year to adjust their budgets to lower enrollment, meaning Clark County will get the same per-pupil funding for 2009-10 that it received for 2008-09, even with fewer students. But unless enrollment rebounds by next fall, the district expects to have to cut its spending accordingly.

As for the stimulus money, Rulffes said the district is complying with all federal requirements, including spending it quickly to save and create jobs, and providing regular public reports to ensure transparency. The federal dollars run out in two years, so the district is also trying to minimize the potential for a “funding cliff” — creating programs that would be left stranded once the stimulus money is spent.

•••

Rulffes will take a voluntary 10 percent pay cut this year, a move aimed at showing solidarity with the cash-strapped education community.

Rulffes earns $307,000 annually. The request to reduce his pay by $30,700 was approved by the School Board Wednesday.

The School Board also approved an expansion of the district’s empowerment initiative, including applying for a federal grant that would add as many as five of the district’s lowest-performing campuses to the pilot program.

Empowerment gives principals more freedom over daily operations and extra funding in exchange for stricter accountability. Also part of the approved expansion, up to 15 other campuses will be allowed to apply for conditional empowerment status without extra per-pupil dollars, although they will be given preferential consideration if money becomes available.

“There are people who say we should expand empowerment even without the money,” Rulffes told the School Board. “But how do you squeeze that out of what’s already too little?”

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