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September 1, 2014

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EDUCATION:

After years of explosive growth, schools to feel economic pinch for years to come

Walt Rulffes

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.

No public entity has been affected more by Southern Nevada’s explosive growth than the Clark County School District, which used soaring enrollment to leverage a $3.5 billion capital campaign to build more than 100 campuses, while adding dozens of programs and thousands of employees.

Now comes the flip side.

The district is likely to feel the pain of the recession long after experts say we should be recovering. That’s in large part because of the district’s reliance on a funding formula that is almost entirely beyond its control and will take longer to reflect an improved economy.

The School District’s rebound will lag because its revenue is largely predicated on property and sales taxes — which will be slower to recover than the rest of the economy, according to Jeremy Aguero, a principal for Applied Analysis.

“We’re going to have to put people back to work and we’re going to have to work through the large overages in our real estate market before we see significant recovery in the revenue streams that go directly to fund K-12 programs.”

Since late 2007, the district has lost more than $250 million in state funding, with another $123 million in cuts required through the end of the biennium. Clark County is bracing for a drop in local tax revenue as well. For the current fiscal year, local tax revenue accounted for 58 percent of the district’s $2.1 billion operating budget, compared with 34 percent from the state. (The state’s share is higher than it used to be because the funding formula is designed to protect districts when local revenue can’t cover the minimum per-pupil guarantee approved by the Legislature.)

“We’re not going to have a quick recovery,” Clark County Schools Superintendent Walt Rulffes said.

“Once things do start to get better, we’ll be focused on rebuilding (district programs and services eliminated in the cuts) before we can even get to improvement (in student achievement). The timeline works against any possible optimism for 2011.”

Although the state’s higher education system has leeway in raising tuition and fees as a means of generating revenue during tough times, that option is not available to Nevada’s public school districts. Indeed, the only revenue stream directly controlled by local districts is the price of school lunches. The district can’t even charge students to take the bus to school without the approval of the Legislature.

“It’s all controlled by outside forces,” Rulffes said. “Our only tools for making major reductions is cutting programs and laying off people.”

In 2009, the district’s enrollment dropped by 1 percent, the first decline in more than 25 years. School demographers think enrollment will decline through 2013.

That’s where the district’s plan to move all year-round schools to nine-month calendars factors into the equation. The School Board will debate the proposal at tonight’s meeting. Complicating the board’s deliberations is the fact that enrollment predictions are uncertain given the region’s depressed economic climate. Even a slight uptick in the local job market could bring new families — and their children — to town, requiring more classroom seats.

The idea of converting year-round schools to nine-month schedules is prompted by the Legislature’s orders to cut education spending by 6.9 percent, or about $123 million. The district plans to meet that target through increased class sizes in grades 1-3, delaying textbook purchases and eliminating 10 percent of school administration positions.

However, that’s still $32 million short of the target, and moving the 76 year-round elementary schools to nine-month calendars is projected to save the district another $15 million to $20 million.

School Board Vice President Carolyn Edwards has said she would support the conversion plan only if it were for at least two years. Otherwise, she says, it would be too disruptive to schools, students and families. Principals and teachers have expressed similar concerns. For the conversions to hold, enrollment would have to decline or hold steady not only next year, but through 2012.

Teachers at year-round schools would see their pay cut, as would support employees. Principals would lose a stipend for working at year-round schools, which amounts to about $3,000 annually. The district would also save on transportation, special education services and operational costs.

Those fiscal benefits aside, the district is running the risk of angering parents in the event year-round schools become necessary again because of population growth.

So far it appears possible to convert the school calendars, district officials say, provided the School Board waives some existing policies and allows counting portable classrooms as regular seats. But changing the definition of “classroom seats” is a risky move, and one that could haunt future school boards. With portable classrooms elevated to regular status, it could be more difficult for future bond campaigns to make the case that new campuses — with permanent seats — are necessary.

In the short-term, the district’s actions are logical, Aguero said.

“You’re talking about continuity of education, the cost of providing services,” he said. “They’re looking under every rock known to man to find ways to be more efficient.”

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