Coronavirus, budget cuts imperil Nevada's struggling schools

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Nevada teachers and administrators worry the coronavirus pandemic and subsequent economic fallout threaten to reverse recent funding hikes passed in 2019 that have buoyed their efforts to lift the state from near the bottom of the nation's education rankings.

For years, Nevada schools have ranked among the nation's worst. An Education Week report presented to state lawmakers last week ranked the state 44th in the nation in per-pupil spending. It noted that K-12 student achievement in Nevada was improving at the seventh fastest rate out of any state in the country, but still ranked 43rd in current achievement scores.

But, the pandemic has sent schools reeling. As students and teachers adapt to less classroom time, administrators are simultaneously confronting challenges posed by reopening and potential budget cuts.

"It's very intense," Clark County Superintendent Jesus Jara said. "It's taken its toll."

While working on a reopening plan for the district's more than 320,000 students and 33,000 employees, Jara is also closely eyeing the efforts of Gov. Steve Sisolak and state lawmakers to plug the state's $812 million hole for the fiscal year ending June 30.

On June 12, the Legislature's finance committee approved a plan to address the projected $265.3 million shortfall in the state's Distributive School Account, where the state's education dollars are stored. Tax revenue from gambling, hospitality and live events, which has long underwritten most of the state's budget, has plummeted after the pandemic shuttered businesses and slowed tourism. Schools are likely to go with tens of millions less tax revenue than initially projected.

The alarming figures arrive a year after what many education advocates saw as a triumphant finish to Nevada's 2019 legislative session when lawmakers earmarked $2.3 billion in general fund revenue for schools. They increased funding by $327 million to reduce class sizes, allocated an additional $72 million to increase pay for teachers and spent more than $100 million on reading and safety initiatives.

Cuts will imperil the progress the Legislature addressed, Jara said, and make it more difficult for school districts to continue improving.

"If we've learned anything from the virus, it's that the inequities in urban schools are great," he said.

Clark County School District's efforts to transition to remote learning have been hampered by the fact that 70,000 of the district's students don't have access to WiFi-capable devices, Jara said.

As staff puts together a reopening proposal, which they plan to unveil at a June 25 meeting, Jara said he has realized that the district's large class sizes make transitioning students back to classrooms even more difficult.

The district is planning to rotate groups of elementary, middle and high school students into classrooms by days or by weeks to ensure social distancing and classroom cleaning can take place.

During off-weeks, when students aren't in the classroom, they'll log in to class remotely from home. The district plans to contain students to classrooms during their lunch periods and is still finalizing its transportation plans. Purchasing the Chromebook computers necessary to roll out a remote learning plan could cost an estimated $21 million, Jara said.

John Vellardita, the executive director of the Clark County Education Association, said he didn't understand the disconnect necessary for state officials to simultaneously pursue reopening and budget cuts, especially given the number of students unable to access remote learning.

"You cannot talk about reopening these schools by cutting the funding at significant levels and at the same time recognize that COVID-19 requires more funding just to be able to reach about one-third of students in Clark County School District alone," the union leader said.

Vellardita vowed that teachers won't return to classrooms unless they're confident in the district's safety precautions.

"We've made that loud and clear. We're not putting people's lives at risk if there aren't these types of precautions in these schools," he said. "You don't roll out a plan and not put one damn dollar on it when everyone knows what it's going to cost to reopen."

Funding will keep returning to the chopping block, Vellardita said, unless Nevada lawmakers find new revenue streams beyond taxing gambling, hospitality and adjacent industries. State lawmakers have long fought over the need to diversify revenue streams and whether the ideal mechanism is raising taxes, investing in luring new industries to the state, or both.

The pandemic has galvanized both sides of the debate, with advocates arguing now is as good of a time as any to wean Nevada off of relying on gambling and hospitality tax revenues and opponents arguing any tax hike could threaten economic recovery and inflict further distress on Nevadans already struggling.


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