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September 23, 2014

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EDUCATION:

Year-round schools could face calendar shift to save money

Rulffes says the move would save millions annually

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Walt Rulffes

Potential benefits of traditional school calendar

  • In addition to $13 million in savings in personnel and operating costs, the district would save another $7 million in support services such as transportation and special education.
  • School maintenance would be reduced because of less wear and tear on facilities, and it would be easier to schedule major repairs.
  • Many parents prefer to have all their children on the same academic calendar, so older siblings can keep an eye on the younger ones. This might be particularly true for struggling families looking for work, or where day care costs have become prohibitive.
  • The problem of air conditioning failures at schools in the summer — a common occurrence, particularly at older campuses — would be solved.
  • Some campuses might be able to offer summer institutes, with programs for both remedial students and those seeking enrichment and accelerated learning.

More than 20 years ago, when the Las Vegas Valley began swelling with thousands of young families moving here for the bounty of plentiful jobs, the Clark County School District realized it couldn’t build new campuses fast enough.

One solution: convert some schools to year-round schedules, which had the effect of creating more classroom seats at a time when they were at a premium.

Now, with growth at a standstill and the School District under the gun to save money, Superintendent Walt Rulffes says it may be time to reconsider the strategy of year-round schools.

Converting the district’s 76 year-round elementary campuses to nine-month calendars could save an estimated $15 to $20 million annually, he says.

Rulffes wants the idea on the table for discussion and possible implementation in the 2010-11 academic year beginning in August.

To make that change, the Clark County School Board would have to agree to bypass some of its own regulations and policies related to portable classrooms, and the 2011 Legislature would have to grant continuance of a waiver passed during last month’s session allowing the district to maintain larger class sizes in the lower grades.

The idea is sure to stir emotions among students and families, particularly if the change were only until the economy rebounds, growth returns and the year-round schools are again necessary.

In a memo to the Clark County School Board, obtained by the Sun, Rulffes outlines potential financial rewards, as well as the risks.

The move could make it easier for the district to schedule professional development for staff, prepare students for state-mandated testing and reduce costs of transportation and special education services. On the downside, the legislative waiver allowing increased class sizes expires in 2011, and once it does the district would likely have to revert to year-round calendars at many campuses.

The district has long argued that year-round schools can be a more cost-effective route, and changing tacks now could be tricky.

“The message of a ‘savings’ by converting to a nine-month calendar is inconsistent with previous messages, even though both messages are accurate under different conditions,” Rulffes wrote in his memo.

Converting to nine-month schools isn’t without risk, the superintendent acknowledges.

“Such a dramatic change as a result of increasing grades 1-3 may send a signal to the Legislature that returning to former class sizes is not advantageous,” Rulffes wrote.

There is no significant difference in student achievement among the district’s nine-month and year-round schools. Each category has its standout performers and struggling campuses.

But some parents prefer the year-round schedule because it means students have structure during the summer months.

And some studies nationally have found that year-round programs are preferable for English language learners, who account for about 20 percent of the district’s student population, because they benefit from continued instruction without a long summer break, especially if they are in homes where English is not spoken.

Another troubling possibility is that the public will fight a return to year-round schedules in the future, when — it is hoped — the region’s economy rebounds and more classroom seats are needed.

And there is a segment of the community that thinks the district would be in even better financial shape were it to put all elementary schools on a year-round calendar and shut down unused campuses entirely.

Because of declining enrollment growth last fall — the first drop in student numbers in more than a quarter-century — the district converted 17 elementary schools to nine-month from year-round calendars, leaving about a third of the elementary schools on the 12-month schedule. (No secondary school is year-round.)

Rulffes’ immediate goal is to finish budget cutting to meet the Legislature’s special session demand for a 6.9 percent spending reduction. In the Clark County School District, that equaled $123 million, and he’s $32 million short of the target.

The Legislature allowed districts to put off replacing some textbooks and classroom materials, which shaved $10 million off the shortfall balance. Another $30 million in savings will come from increasing class sizes by one per room in grades 1 and 2 and up to two students per room in grade 3, eliminating 540 teaching positions. The lower grades had been protected by the state’s class size-reduction mandate, which was temporarily suspended by lawmakers.

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.

With personnel costs accounting for more than 86 percent of the district’s operating budget, eliminating another 500 teaching jobs would account for the final $32 million to be lopped off the budget.

Going to a nine-month schedule would significantly reduce the last cutbacks needed to reach the Legislature’s target.

Principal Celeste Oaks has worked at both year-round and nine-month schools, and can see the potential benefits of both schedules.

Lincoln Elementary School

At Lincoln Elementary, where she worked for more than four years with at-risk students, the nine-month calendar allowed time in the summer months for remedial programs. She’s in her third year at Walker International Elementary in Henderson, a dual-language program thriving on a year-round schedule.

If the district can significantly trim its budget by reorganizing schools, and those savings don’t have to come in the form of teacher layoffs, then the conversion concept needs serious consideration, Oakes said.

“Saving classroom teacher jobs is so important, because that’s the closest place to the students,” Oakes said. “And that’s what we all want — the least impact on the children.”

It is unknown how many teaching jobs might be saved by switching to a nine-month calendar. All teachers are paid for the same 184 contract days, whether it’s at a nine-month or year-round school. Some specialists — in areas including special education and the fine arts — are paid for additional contract days to cover year-round schools. Those people would see their pay reduced, said Ruben Murillo, president of the Clark County Education Association.

Another concern for the union is the effect of counting portable classrooms as regular classroom seats, and how that might affect students, Murillo said.

“I would hope the district would look at this on a case-by-case basis and do what’s best for each individual school,” Murillo said.

Paychecks for the district’s year-round school principals are about 13 percent more than what they would have earned at a nine-month school — an annual salary, on average, of about $118,000 versus $105,000. And the administrators’ union contract with the district protects that salary bump. Principals at year-round schools continue to earn the higher salary even if they are reassigned to nine-month schools, although the district can add extra work duties during the summer months to compensate for the extra pay.

Steve Augspurger, executive director of the Clark County Association of School Administrators, said he plans to begin meeting today with principals at year-round schools to get their input.

“If we can save money and make this a long-term move, then I think we should consider it,” Augspurger said. “If it’s going to be a short-term fix that’s going to be very disruptive, that has to be considered.”

As for whether principals will support the switch, Augspurger said he expects to hear from both sides of the equation.

“There are going to be people who say ‘Yippee, it’s about time’ and those who say ‘Oh no, why are we doing this,’ ” Augspurger said. “We have principals working on year-round contracts who believe this is the best thing we could be doing for children, and it has proved results.”

Principals of year-round schools who do not believe their campuses should be converted will be asked to make their case to the region offices.

School Board Vice President Carolyn Edwards echoed Augspurger’s concern about the timetable for the switch.

“It would have to be for at least two years,” Edwards said. “The problem we have is the Legislature could say no (to extending the class size reduction waiver).”

She’s also worried about setting a precedent by waiving district policy and counting portable classrooms as permanent classroom seats.

However, Nevada’s economic recovery still seems far off and the School District is expecting to lose even more funding next year as enrollment and local tax revenue decline.

The conversion concept represents “big dollars,” Edwards said. “I think lawmakers will understand we’re looking for ways to save money. It would be irresponsible of us not to consider it.”

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