First major budget differences appear over education funding

The first major budget disagreements reared up Thursday in hearings on Gov. Kenny Guinn's proposed education budgets.

Unfortunately for Guinn, one of the few things Ways and Means and Senate Finance members agreed on is that there isn't enough money this session to fund full-day kindergarten.

Ways and Means members suggested keeping $6 million of the requested $24 million to fund a competitive grants process for those districts wishing to experiment with full-day kindergarten.

Assemblywoman Chris Giunchigliani, D-Las Vegas, a former teacher and longtime supporter of full-day kindergarten, said the plan would at least get the process started at schools which have the classroom space and other resources.

But Senate Majority Leader Bill Raggio, R-Reno, and Sen. Ray Rawson, R-Las Vegas, said they don't think the state can afford it this coming biennium.

"I'm not sure it's even wise to do the $6 million here," Raggio said. "I don't think we should do any full-day kindergarten."

They were joined by Assembly Minority Leader Lynn Hettrick, R-Gardnerville, confirming the disagreement was more along party lines than along Senate versus Assembly lines.

The Senate, dominated by Republicans, voted to eliminate full-day kindergarten from the budget. The Assembly, with a majority of Democrats, voted to keep $6 million for the trial program.

The battle was followed by another disagreement over class-size reduction budgets, which pay to keep classes at a maximum of 16 students per teacher in first and second grades and 19 students in third grade. Class-size reduction is one of education's largest budgets -- $108.7 million in fiscal 2004 and $114.7 million in fiscal 2005.

Raggio and the Senate voted to support giving school districts more flexibility -- spreading class-size money to allow 22 students per teacher in first through fifth grades. In addition to giving more flexibility to districts, the move would save $22.8 million the first year and $24.6 million the second.

Assembly members, on a motion by Sheila Leslie, D-Reno, voted to keep existing ratios the way they are in first through third grades and to reduce kindergarten sizes to 16 students in 2005, which would cost more than $10 million more instead of reducing total spending. Giunchigliani said more flexibility means practically eliminating accountability for the class-size reduction money.

The houses disagreed again on Guinn's proposal to kick in more money to help teachers pay the increased cost of their Public Employee Retirement Benefits Program contributions each year. The increase is $10 million a year. Raggio and Hettrick argued to eliminate the budget item saying teachers shouldn't get any more help paying their retirement than any other public worker.

The Assembly Democrats said funding should be kept and the state should pay the retirement-benefit tab for all school employees -- a cost of nearly $20 million a year.

The two groups also agreed to disagree over whether to "fence off" the $50 per pupil Guinn proposed earmarking for textbooks. While Giunchigliani said she believes the money should be put in the funding mix and school districts allowed to decide how to spend it, Raggio said that would only let it be snapped up for salaries during arbitration. Then, he said, the complaints would continue about how lawmakers don't fund textbooks and equipment.

The disagreements will all have to be resolved when the full Ways and Means and Senate Finance committees meet later this month. The two committees will get ready for that process by the end of next week when they hope to have all 408 state budget accounts closed.

For the most part this session, the two committees have been in agreement over what to do with the governor's proposed budget.


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