$14 million reserve will soften blows to budget | NevadaAppeal.com

$14 million reserve will soften blows to budget

Carson Schools Superintendent Richard Stokes and Brian Wallace, head of the teachers’ union, both say budget cuts will hurt the district, forcing larger class sizes and other reductions.

But they say the district is in a better position to protect essential educational services than most school districts in Nevada.

“Carson for the past eight or nine years has been very fiscally frugal,” said Wallace.

As a result of those decisions, mostly supported by the union, the district has a reserve of nearly $14 million to help it through whatever reductions the state imposes on K-12 education.

“Some of that ending fund balance will allow us to cushion some of what will happen,” said Stokes.

He said that reserve means Carson won’t have to look at shortening the school year and, if class size reduction rules go away, not losing nearly half the teachers in the first three grades. Most of those lost positions, he said, could be put back with reserve money.

Those reserves, Stokes said, also will enable the district to protect teachers providing art, music and physical education in elementary schools.

“If programs like that were cut, some children would want to check out of school in general,” Wallace said.

Stokes said, however, there will be larger classes if cuts are imposed.

“But hopefully not to the level that classes are so large teachers are not able to do their jobs well,” he said.

Gov. Jim Gibbons has proposed removing the mandate imposing class sizes of 15 in grades one and two, 19 in third grade, and allowing districts to decide whether they want to keep those rules.

Wallace, a middle school history teacher, said 25 students is manageable for middle and high school but not in grades one and two when students are just learning the rules of classroom conduct.

Stokes said those small classes get students started on the road to a successful education and it’s important to keep them. “It gives them the basis to be good students.”

They agreed they just won’t know the full impact until they see what the governor and lawmakers do in the special session set to begin

Feb. 23.

“It seems to me the governor’s probably headed back to that per pupil amount that was in his budget,” said Stokes.

Carson District is budgeted for $6,228 per pupil under the legislatively approved budget. If that support is cut to what the governor originally proposed, the district would lose $382 per student, costing the district $2.9 million next year.

Stokes said if lawmakers eliminate “hold harmless” protection which protects existing enrollment funding when enrollment drops – as Carson’s has for seven years – the district would lose another $2 million – a total hit of nearly $5 million out of a $51.4 million budget.

Absorbing those reductions, he said, would mean larger class sizes. Since 85-90 percent of the budget is personnel costs, it would force a reduction in employees including teachers.

“Our costs are in the people,” he said.

One of the carrots the governor is waving is the offer of more flexibility with the elimination of several mandates.

Stokes said that could mean combining the different pots of money for class size reduction, full-day kindergarten, books, supplies and other categories with the per-pupil distributive school account budget.

He said lawmakers and the governor should then give the districts and their local boards the power to decide how those funds are used. He said the flexibility is important because every district – from Clark and Washoe, which are huge to White Pine and Pershing, which are tiny – has different needs.

Wallace said until the special session happens, “we’re kind of at a standstill.”

That has pretty much put a hold on contract negotiations with teachers now under way in Carson City as well.

Asked about the financial crisis and its impact on teacher salaries, Wallace said, “We are fully aware of that and currently we would not expect raises.”

Both men emphasized that Carson School District and its unions are trying to work together to resolve the problem.

“Getting along with each other is imperative,” said Wallace. “As soon as we get past the special session so both sides can see what’s happening, I assume the district, the board and all bargaining groups will pull together.”