Las Vegas Sun

January 30, 2015

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Schools confront obvious and obscure budget cuts

Walt Rulffes

Walt Rulffes

As a new governor and Legislature prepare to deal with a $2 billion-plus budget deficit in February, the Clark County School District needs to focus on two questions — one obvious, the second obscure:

• The obvious: Can the district — where three-quarters of Nevada’s students live — absorb what might be $400 million or more in cuts in one year? That’s as much as it absorbed over the past three years.

• The obscure: Can the district — with 300,000 students and 18,000 teachers — increase teacher accountability without the money to develop databases to make such accountability possible?

It’s understandable that politicians, unions, administrators, parent groups and others have not publicly addressed these questions, so far.

After all, many important people will be new.

Schools Superintendent Walt Rulffes held his retirement party Wednesday night. His successor, Dwight Jones, takes office next Wednesday. And next year, three members of the seven-member School Board will be new, as will its president.

Still, questions remain. First, the obscure. Buried on Page 57 of Gov. Jim Gibbons’ recent “Education Reform Blue Ribbon Task Force Report” is the following admission:

Although Nevada has all the student and teacher data it needs for teacher accountability, it lacks “the application necessary to mine the data, compile the information and report on the results.”

Current Nevada systems contain teacher data — including credentials, licensure and courses taught — and student test data for kindergarten through 12th grade.

It is as if a bank had all your ATM receipts, checks, deposits and other data, but lacked the application to produce your monthly statement.

Developing the right “longitudinal data systems,” as the applications are known, will require tens of millions of dollars that Nevada — and Clark County — do not have.

Such systems are vital, according to Gintas Vildzius, a senior technology official at GE Energy Measurement & Control Solutions. He led the data-systems team for the governor’s panel.

If it existed, the system would track a child’s progress at one school in one year with one teacher, and with all teachers at her school, and track her if she moved to another school anywhere in the state.

Such databases could become “more like a central nervous system for decision-making in our education system,” Vildzius said. Without such data, teachers may not be evaluated fairly.

Now, the obvious. Last month, officials told the School Board that in the fiscal year beginning in July, there will be a deficit of $150 million as well as an unexpected $30 million increase in the district’s contribution to the employee retirement fund. The School District’s total budget is more than $2 billion.

Those numbers haven’t changed, officials say. What has changed is the amounts of rumored employee pay cuts, pension contribution increases and rising health insurance premiums that are circulating.

The School District and the teachers union dismiss the numbers as not even preliminary.

Viewed another way, the $180 million hole the district faces — even before Carson City adds hundreds of millions more in cuts — is actually larger.

Jim McIntosh, the district’s deputy chief financial officer, said this week that the biggest chunk of the $150 million deficit he reported to the School Board in November comes from falling property tax receipts.

Although the district initially expected $112 million less in taxes, McIntosh said it redirected money from fund balances and other state money to bring the expected loss down to $43 million.

The next biggest chunk is about $70 million the district expected from the state that it never got.

After that is $37 million in pay concessions from labor agreements, about $25 million from teachers alone.

Those givebacks expire next year and are automatically restored, unless they are eliminated or reduced by negotiation with the unions.

Meanwhile, district planning documents — the equivalent of Pentagon war games — are circulating.

One source, who insisted on anonymity because the person was not authorized to discuss them, said pay cuts may go as high as 6 percent and insurance premiums may go up as much as 10 percent.

Retirement-fund contributions, paid entirely by the district, will be split with employees, the source said.

Teachers union President Ruben Murillo said it’s too early to discuss the details of union pay concessions. “We’re in spring training,” he said. “We’re not even in the first inning yet.”

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