Thursday, July 29, 2010 | 2 a.m.
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Rory Reid wants voters to believe that Republican rival Brian Sandoval will lay off 5,000 Nevada teachers if he wins.
He proclaims it in weekly news releases, an expensive television ad campaign and even on fliers left on car windshields.
Internal polling shows education is at the top of voters’ minds in the governor’s race, and the Reid campaign has decided it can win by convincing people that Reid will fix Nevada’s broken education system and Sandoval would only make it worse.
So Reid is casting Sandoval as public education’s grim reaper.
The problem? Sandoval has never proposed a single teacher layoff. And to conjure the scenario in which Sandoval lays off 20 percent of the state’s teachers, Reid relies on a sequence of “what ifs.”
As Gov. Jim Gibbons and the Legislature grappled with an $824 million state budget deficit this year, Sandoval offered his solution.
He proposed cutting teacher salaries by 4 percent — something the Legislature and governor are powerless to do. Instead, lawmakers would reduce school funding equal to a 4 percent salary cut and allow districts to decide how to implement the reductions. Such a move, by Reid’s calculations, would eliminate $133 million in state funding for school districts.
Here’s where the “what ifs” begin:
• If school districts spend 55 percent of their budgets on instruction, Reid reasons, then $73 million would have to come out of the classroom.
• If teachers make an average $50,067 salary, then districts would have to fire 1,458 teachers, he concludes.
Sandoval’s short-term budget solution would have saved the state $542 million. Confronted by a larger hole in the budget, Sandoval would have had to cut salaries even more, Reid says.
Thus begins another series of “what ifs”:
• If Sandoval had cut salaries to fix the full $824 million deficit, then he would have had to cut teacher salaries 11.6 percent, Reid says. That translates to 2,087 teachers gone, according to Reid’s math.
• Also, Sandoval proposed taking $110 million in Clark County class-size reduction money and allowing the county to replace it using capital improvement funds. If Clark County decided not to replace that money, then 1,635 teachers would lose their jobs, Reid says.
In all of this, Reid glosses over perhaps the biggest “what if” — what if the teachers union simply agreed to pay cuts to save jobs? In that case, the budget could be cut without any teachers losing their jobs.
That’s the goal Sandoval said he’s aiming for.
“I don’t want any layoffs, particularly when our state leads the country with a 14.2 percent unemployment rate,” he said. “The point of the plan is to avoid layoffs.”
Reid’s spokesman Mike Trask refused to acknowledge that any other outcome could result from Sandoval’s proposal to cut salaries. He described the idea that unions would submit to salary reductions as laughable.
“His short-term solution is based entirely on the fact that in some magical world, the teachers union would come back and say, ‘OK, we’ll take a 12 percent pay cut.’ That’s his entire plan. I don’t care what number you put down, the numbers are meaningless unless the teachers union agrees to some massive pay cut.”
Yet as tax revenue continues to plummet, public employees at all levels and across the state have been agreeing to salary concessions, including teachers.
In 2009, when the Democratic-controlled Legislature slashed funding for teacher salaries by 4 percent, no teachers were laid off in the state’s two biggest counties, according to state officials. Instead, school districts found a variety of ways to deal with the loss of revenue, including freezing pay raises, implementing furloughs, emptying ending-fund balances and cutting other areas.
That’s not to say the state’s teachers aren’t in a precarious position regardless of who is elected governor.
In this year’s special session, lawmakers allowed districts to temporarily increase class sizes, resulting in the elimination of 545 teaching positions in Clark and Washoe counties. Exactly how many layoffs that will mean is not yet known, because it depends on how many teachers retire or leave the district this year. But, at least in Washoe County, attrition has slowed to the point many teaching contracts won’t be renewed, officials there said.
The state’s next governor is expected to face a budget deficit of $3 billion when he takes office next year. School funding accounts for nearly 40 percent of the state budget.
Neither candidate has provided details on how he would close that deficit next year. But Sandoval has acknowledged he would pursue salary cuts.
Battered by three years of reduced funding, local school districts would almost certainly lay off teachers if lawmakers forced another round of budget cuts and unions did not agree to salary concessions, according to some education officials.
“I would say that would be their only choice,” said Keith Rheault, the state superintendent of public instruction.