Public schools seek $5.2 billion

The Nevada Department of Education presented budget requests totaling more than $5.2 billion in state funds Monday - including $60.7 million for Gov. Jim Gibbons' "Empowerment Program."

But Steve Robinson, representing the governor's office, was unable to give lawmakers any real specifics about how that program will work other than to say it will shift more decision making down to individual schools.

"We're now formulating the specifics," he told members of the Assembly Ways and Means and Senate Finance committees. "The purpose is to move discretionary powers to the lowest level."

Senate Finance chairman Bill Raggio, R-Reno, told Robinson the committees will need those specifics "as quickly as possible." And he told Robinson that, since Gibbons was funding the plan by eliminating retirement credits designed to attract more teachers to Nevada, lawmakers will want to know what the negative consequences of eliminating those will be.

Gibbons said in his State of the State address he wanted to begin the empowerment program with 100 schools. Asked the reason for that number, Robinson said "I don't know exactly - it's not hard and fast."

He said in part the program depends on "buy in" by the school districts.

"What if they don't buy in to it?" asked Senate Minority Leader Dina Titus, D-Las Vegas.

Robinson said he was confident the districts and teachers would support the idea adding that it will be similar to the program already being tested in four Clark County schools.

"Teachers, principals and parents are going to have more to say about how their school is run," he said after the meeting.

He said one reason the teaching profession loses good educators is the restrictions on how they do their job. He said many complain they come to their bosses with good ideas only to be told they can't do that because of the rules.

Superintendent of Education Keith Rheault told lawmakers enrollment growth is slowing but still enough to require about $200 million more over the coming two years. The 3/4 percent increase in the retirement benefits rate plus 12 percent each year inflation in health insurance will require another $87 million, and the raises in the proposed budget about $171 million.

The budget proposed by Gibbons will raise per pupil support in the public schools 14 percent to $5,122 next year and 4 percent to $5,329 per pupil in 2009.

Monday's hearing was designed as an overview. A full and detailed examination of the proposed education budgets will be held by both committees during the 2007 Legislature, which opens for business Monday.

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

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