Money committees begin resolving education budgets | NevadaAppeal.com

Money committees begin resolving education budgets

Members of Ways and Means voted Tuesday to make it clear they believe teachers deserve more than the 2 percent pay raises in Gov. Kenny Guinn’s proposed budget.

While Senators on the joint subcommittee held off voting, the Assembly group headed by Chris Giunchigliani, D-Las Vegas, voted to fund 5 percent raises each year of the biennium – which would add $193 million to the budget. Each 1 percent increase costs taxpayers $21 million.

After the meeting, she conceded that’s more than the $180.1 million the Economic Forum added to projected 2006-2007 revenues Monday.

“We’re making a point,” she said. “If we’d accepted 2 percent, we’d never get beyond that.”

The vote was one of several places where Senate and Assembly members disagreed as they began the process of closing the state’s biggest single budget, the Distributive School Account that funds public schools.

The meeting began with members of both houses supporting a series of budget corrections and adjustments that will soak up an additional $77.9 million over the biennium. The Legislature must make up the $44 million reduction in property tax revenues the 17 school districts will receive because of the property tax relief bill passed earlier this session.

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They must add $8.34 million to the budget for inflation in electric and gas costs to schools and $10.4 million because of changes in the retirement system contributions this budget cycle. And it will take $34.6 million to cover accounting errors in the Clark and Washoe County school district budgets.

Together, those additions total $132 million over the biennium. But $54 million of that is offset by increased sales tax revenues the districts can expect under Monday’s adjusted Economic Forum revenue projections.

The net increase approved by the joint subcommittee is $77.9 million.

They also agreed to add a total of $12 million to continue providing teachers working in high impact positions and in at risk schools with extra retirement credit. And the subcommittee agreed to add inflation increases to the funding for textbook purchases – about $4.3 million to that $64 million fund – along with funding to continue Early Childhood Education programs.

But long-standing disagreements quickly emerged over class-size reduction – budgeted for $260.2 million over the biennium. Republicans in both houses argued for more flexibility, allowing Clark and Washoe school districts to move away from 15:1 in first and second grades and 19:1 in third. Senate Majority Leader Bill Raggio, R-Reno, argued they should be able to spread the benefits over grades 1-6, reducing all class sizes to 22-25 students.

Sen. Bernice Mathews, D-Sparks, said that would lead to economic segregation because old schools in poorer neighborhoods would still have large classes with two teachers while new schools – designed with more but smaller classrooms – would get the benefit of small classes.

Since the problem is the lack of classrooms, Giunchigliani suggested the Legislature mandate school districts build the necessary classrooms within four years.

The issue remains unresolved.

The subcommittee split generally on party lines over the governor’s proposed reduction in employee health benefit premiums.

That recommendation was based on new projections by the Public Employee Benefit Program, but Giunchigliani said teachers aren’t necessarily part of that program and the rates for their health plans are increasing.

She argued lawmakers should keep the full amount in the budget. Republicans on the subcommittee indicated they favor at least partially reducing the funding.

The two groups disagreed again over the governor’s proposed $100 million remediation fund for grades 1-6. Assemblywoman Sheila Leslie, D-Reno, said that goal might be better reached by using the money to fund full-day kindergarten – estimated at $72 million.

“I believer we wouldn’t need so much remediation if we had full-day kindergarten,” she said.

Reaching agreement on public school funding is one of the key steps in completing the state budget since that subject consumes more than 37 percent of general fund revenue.

The proposed school account for the coming two year budget cycle is just under $2 billion.

n Contact reporter Geoff Dornan at gdornan@nevadaappeal.com or 687-8750.

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