Budget would cut per-pupil spending on public schools | NevadaAppeal.com

Budget would cut per-pupil spending on public schools

Lawmakers were told Thursday the governor’s proposed public school budget would reduce the state’s per pupil spending $355 below what the 2007 Legislature approved.

The base amount per pupil was set at $5,323 two years ago. Jim Wells of the Department of Education said the proposed budget would cut that to $4,968 each year of the coming biennium.

Ways and Means Chairman Morse Arberry, D-Las Vegas, described this year as “probably the worst time we’ve ever seen in the Nevada economy.”

He called for long-range planning to prevent cuts in future recessions, but Wells told him the only realistic solution would be a rainy day fund.

Speaker Barbara Buckley, D-Las Vegas, said legislation is being prepared on that subject.

Lawmakers were told there are numerous other reductions in the public school budgets, including elimination of the Regional Professional Development Program designed to improve teacher qualifications and skills so they meet federal “highly qualified” requirements, the practical elimination of teacher signing bonuses and retirement credits for teaching in at-risk schools, the proposed 6 percent pay cuts for teachers and reductions in their employee health benefits.

“So many of these major reduction areas proposed by the governor are ones I don’t support,” said Buckley. “But we have dire economic times. We are going to have to come up with solutions that make sense for the state, and probably every agency area is going to have to sustain some levels of cuts as we weather this unprecedented downturn.”

Wells said the state is getting a bit of a break because public school enrollments are about 14,000 students below what was projected for this fiscal year. Total reported enrollment for fiscal 2009 is 422,346. The projection used to build the budget is 436,675.

Wells said the Department of Education and districts are now projecting less than a 1 percent increase in enrollment for each of the coming two years.

Superintendent of Education Keith Rheault said enrollment has declined over the past two years in 13 of Nevada’s 17 counties and increased in three of the remaining counties by a total of just 51 students. The growth, he said, is all in Clark County, which has three-quarters of the public school students in Nevada.

The recommended per pupil Distributive School Account budget, Wells said, is $1.44 billion in fiscal 2010 and $1.46 billion in 2011.

Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford, D-Las Vegas, said he knows the school districts went through an extensive process, including public hearings, to work out what can and can’t be cut back but that those priorities may not be exactly what Gov. Jim  Gibbons has proposed.

He asked Rheault and Wells to identify “the three or four most critical programs that should not be cut at all that are on the governor’s proposed list.”

He also asked for a list of programs the department and districts believe could be reduced or eliminated which aren’t on the governor’s list.

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