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October 30, 2014

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Education cuts may never be healed after special session

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Sam Morris

Clark County Schools Superintendent Walt Rulffes testifies during the first day of the legislative special session Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2010, in Carson City.

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History suggests that Nevada’s public schools may never recover from the budget cuts being required of them by legislators after this weekend.

Consider what has happened since 2001, when the Clark County School District increased class sizes in grades 4 through 12 in order to save tens of millions of dollars. Larger classes meant fewer teachers to pay.

“I thought we would work our way back out of that in a year or two,” said Superintendent Walt Rulffes, who as the chief financial officer at the time was responsible for signing off on the operating budget. “But it never happened. It just got worse.”

Now, with the Legislature’s special-session mandate that the district trim 6.9 percent from its operating budget, Rulffes wonders whether the district will ever be able to restore what is being lost this time.

State Sen. Joyce Woodhouse, D-Henderson, chairwoman of the Legislative Committee on Education, said she and other lawmakers share Rulffes’ fears.

“One could argue you never really do catch back up,” said Woodhouse, a retired educator who ran the School District’s community partnership program. “You’ve lost the momentum you would have had if you had kept on going, even if it was small steps.”

And for much of the past decade, “small steps” are exactly what Nevada had been clinging to as evidence of progress in academic achievement: slow and steady improvement in graduation and dropout rates, tiny gains in average student test scores on national exams, more opportunities for career and technical education, increased funding for full-day kindergarten.

When the budget crisis began more than two years ago, one of the first items on the state’s chopping block were tens of millions of dollars in grants for innovation and remediation in the state’s K-12 schools. Also lost was funding for “empowerment,” a pilot program that provided extra per-pupil dollars to schools and more control over daily operations in exchange for stricter accountability. A statewide “pay for performance” model for teachers has also been abandoned.

The new fear is that changes required by the latest cuts — with more budget shortfalls expected when the 2011 Legislature convenes — will become part of Nevada’s public education DNA.

“As much as possible, we need sunset provisions, so we don’t get stuck with them in perpetuity,” said Alison Turner, president of the Nevada PTA. “But the reality is, some of these things are never coming back.”

If there’s a silver lining to the special session, Turner said, it’s that lawmakers hammered out an agreement to change state statute so that Nevada can qualify for the federal “Race to the Top” grant program. The Silver State had been excluded because of a law that prohibited using student test data in teacher evaluations. Nevada could be eligible for up to $167 million in grants for public school reform.

“We consider that a significant victory,” Turner said. “We have some proven, research-based programs that were in place already in Nevada and lost their funding. And we have some school reforms that are just waiting for the federal money.”

Although the 6.9 percent cut in public education is certainly better than some of the worse-case scenarios that had been floated in recent months, local schools will still take a hit.

The Clark County School District’s share of the cuts comes to $123 million trimmed from the general fund, and $25 million that would have gone to capital expenses such as campus renovations and repairs.

The district currently is under budget by about $40 million in the 2010 fiscal year, and Rulffes plans to apply that savings toward the $123 million target.

The Legislature also approved letting districts put off replacing textbooks and instructional supplies for a year, a savings of $10 million, leaving Rulffes with $73 million more to cut.

Rulffes plans to recommend reducing school and central office administration by 10 percent — roughly 120 jobs — at a savings of $11 million. The district also intends to increase class sizes (sound familiar?) by one student per room in grades 1 and 2 and up to two students per room in grade 3, saving $30 million largely by eliminating 540 teaching positions. The lower grades had previously been protected by the state’s class size-reduction mandate, which lawmakers agreed to temporarily suspend.

District officials are hopeful that such extensive layoffs won’t be necessary. It’s likely that enough people will retire or relocate at the end of the academic year that most of the teachers who lose their grades 1 through 3 classroom assignments will be reassigned, although “finding the right fit will certainly be a challenge,” Rulffes said.

That leaves $32 million left to cut, and that’s where contract negotiations with employees’ unions come into play. With personnel costs accounting for more than 86 percent of the district’s operating budget, cuts in salaries and benefits will have to be part of the discussion, Rulffes said.

“We know this is going to be a very difficult year,” Rulffes said. “And the next biennium isn’t looking much better. We fully realize there isn’t enough money to go around, and that’s why shared sacrifice is the best route.”

One option might be delaying step increases to employee salaries, which would save $26 million annually. And eliminating one of the noninstructional days in the teachers’ contracts would save approximately $9 million.

If the district can’t win the union’s support on those fronts, “we would probably have to implement the elimination of another 500 jobs,” Rulffes said.

Ruben Murillo, president of the Clark County Education Association, said he thinks that through negotiations “we’ll come out with some sort of plan that minimizes the impact on students and teachers.”

Click to enlarge photo

Former state Sen. Bill Raggio, shown here during the 2010 special legislative session, died Thursday at age 85 after falling ill while on a trip in Australia with his wife, Dale.

Nevada’s public colleges and universities are also facing 6.9 percent reductions in state funding, and there are similar fears that what’s cut won’t be restored. That could mean eliminated degree and research programs, larger class sizes and higher costs for students.

“Things that go away tend not to come back,” university system Chancellor Dan Klaich said Monday. “The outlook for the revenue in this state, based on what our tax structure is right now, isn’t good. I don’t think any of us can look forward to a speedy or robust recovery that would support bringing things back quickly.”

College and university presidents are meeting with faculty and staff on proposals for meeting the mandated budget cuts, and tentative plans are expected in the coming weeks.

Senate Minority Leader Bill Raggio, R-Reno, said the budget crisis is forcing education leaders to scrutinize their spending and make appropriate changes, and “that probably can be therapeutic in the long run … I expect some funding restoration as our economy improves. These are austere measures taken in tough times.”

And certainly, time will tell.

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