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April 20, 2014

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Budget crunch puts shorter school year, teacher pay cuts on table

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Shortening the school year, cutting teacher pay and delaying textbook purchases were among the options floated at today’s meeting of the Interim Finance Committee, which met to review a potential $167 million hole in the state’s budget for K-12 education.

Gov. Jim Gibbons is calling for a 10 percent cut to K-12 education over the remainder of the biennium. That equates to $41 million for the current fiscal year and $125.6 million for 2011.

Jim Wells, deputy superintendent for administrative and fiscal services for the Nevada Education Department, said his staff has identified areas where state-level school funds can be shifted to help off-set the budget shortfall, leaving about $157 million to be trimmed by the 17 individual districts.

State law requires the public school year to be 180 days, up to five of which can be used for professional development. For each school day that is cut, the state would save $13 million in employee salaries and benefits, Wells said.

Lawmakers and education officials made it clear that professional training days – rather than instructional days with students – should be the first to be trimmed.

“From the standpoint of the public perspective, the non-instructional days should be the lowest priority,” said Senate Minority Leader Bill Raggio, R-Reno.

The Clark County School District is facing budget cuts in basic support from the state of $27.7 million for this year and $84.7 million next year. That’s on top of the $250 million that’s already been trimmed since 2008, and doesn’t include projected shortfalls in local tax revenues.

Each day cut from the school year in the state’s largest district would save $8.8 million.

If the district were to eliminate the four days it currently sets aside for professional development, it would be the equivalent of a 2 percent pay cut for the majority of employees, Clark County Schools Superintendent Walt Rulffes told the committee.

And to do that, “We would need some legislative cover to set aside negotiated agreements, on the basis of a fiscal emergency," he said.

The district is preparing to go into contract negotiations with the teachers’ union. The current bargaining agreement runs through June 30, and automatically renews unless one side requests arbitration.

Personnel costs account for nearly 90 percent of the district’s $2.1 billion operating budget. The best hope the district has to save jobs would be for the teachers’ and administrators’ unions to agree to an approach of “shared sacrifice,” Rulffes said. “The only way to really do that is a temporarily shortened work year.”

Cutting sports programs would save the district just $5 million annually, and eliminating all other extra-curricular activities would trim another $6.2 million. That won’t even get Clark County into the ballpark of what the governor is calling for, Rulffes said.

If the district increased class sizes by one student in each grade (1-12), it would eliminate 400 teaching positions and save $26.5 million.

Bumping up class sizes in grades 1-3, which have been protected by the Legislature, would eliminate 223 teaching positions and save $15 million.

State education officials and superintendents from other parts of the state urged the committee to let individual districts decide how to best to meet the required budget cuts, rather than ordering the elimination of specific programs and services such as full-day kindergarten or career and technical education.

“The goal of the Education Department is to minimize the impact on student learning and to retain jobs,” Wells said. “We want to leave districts as much flexibility as possible.”

With Nevada already ranked at the bottom nationally when it comes to per-pupil funding, Assemblyman Morse Arberry, D-Las Vegas, wondered how far back the public education system would be pushed by the proposed budget cuts.

“Will we ever catch up?” Arberry asked. “I hope it’s in my lifetime.”

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