Carson City schools, community struggle with looming cuts
As school district officials set about cutting more than $6 million from its annual budget, there is an air of trepidation that extends even beyond classroom.
“It’s a difficult activity for everybody involved,” said Richard Stokes, superintendent of the Carson City School District. “It spills out into the community and causes a feeling of uncertainty.”
The dozens of teachers and other staff who may be laid off or reassigned represent more than just lost jobs, Stokes said.
“These kinds of events have a tremendous opportunity for loss in terms of human capital and opportunities we can provide our students,” he said. “Our school district has become recognized for a certain level of commitment and expertise. To reduce any of that is going to change the way we’re perceived and limit the amount of attention and programs we might have otherwise offered.”
It was easy to see coming. School enrollment – which determines the amount of money allotted from the state’s Distributive School Account – began dropping in 2004. Since then, the district has lost more than 800 students.
Then the recession hit, drying up other sources of revenue, such as grants and other state and federal funding.
Now, the district faces anticipated $6 million shortfall.
Stokes said the school district began right away looking at ways to save money by not replacing staff who left or retired if not necessary.
“We reassessed every position to see if it was something we really needed,” he said.
Other, more drastic measures were proposed, such as the suggestion in 2009 to shut down one of the district’s six elementary schools. Met with great opposition from the community and school staff, the idea was scrapped.
Instead, the district relied heavily on the ample reserve budget it had built up to fill the gap.
It was a deliberate decision to hold off cuts as long as possible.
“We recognized there was value in keeping as whole as possible our programs and staff,” Stokes said. “We could have made these cuts sooner, but more kids may have lost opportunities earlier. I’m not sure what benefit there would have been to that outcome.”
Although the final budget is not due to the state until May, the Carson City School Board hosted two community workshops in October seeking the public’s advice on how to cut costs.
From those suggestions, Stokes formulated a draft of suggested cuts, which he presented to the school board in November.
It included plans to lay off about 30 employees. All elementary school counselors would be eliminated as would three custodians and an assortment of other teachers and staff throughout the district.
Student-to-teacher ratios in first through third grades would increase to 22-to-1.
Librarians would become classified employees rather than teachers.
Athletes would be required to pay $25 per sport to participate, with a $75 cap. Middle school athletic teams would be limited to competing in the area from Fallon to Truckee.
Field trips would be eliminated, and other travel expenses reduced.
Taking all of the suggested cuts the projected budget remains $2 million short.
REACTIONS TO THE PLAN
While there is a general consensus that the budget decisions should be made earlier rather than later, there is plenty of dissension about how to get there.
Perhaps the most vocal of all the groups on the chopping block are the librarians and library supporters.
Cory King, library media specialist at Carson High School, protested to the board during Tuesday’s meeting.
“I’m not here to protect myself,” he said. “I’m here on behalf of my students. I believe what I do, and what other librarians do, is important to their future.”
He said replacing media specialists – those who have received a master’s degree in library science – with media clerks -who are trained to check out and catalog books – is a disservice.
He said students are exposed to more information than ever, but need to be instructed on how to find the appropriate information then what to do with it once they’ve found it.
Carson Middle School’s library media specialist Ananda Campbell said she spends the bulk of her day teaching, something a certified employee would not be qualified to do.
“I teach,” she said. “I teach every single day. I have close to 1,200 students I’m responsible for.”
She said she draws connections between what students are learning in different subjects, where regular classroom teachers don’t always see them.
She works with reluctant readers, and keeps the library open before and after school as well as during lunch for students who need a safe place to learn. A classified employee, paid by the hour rather than on salary, would not be able to do the same, she said.
“What I do cannot be done by a media clerk,” Campbell said, “We need a teacher.”
Trustee Joanna Wilson said she agreed librarians serve an important role. But, she said, she wasn’t sure that was enough to save the position.
“We’re not picking on you,” she said. “If we don’t remodel our libraries, who do we remodel?”
Barbara Myers, board trustee, has an idea. In a suggestion that has led to pointed and sometimes angry exchanges between board members, Myers recommended the district office look at cutting one of its own.
“You need to think of one person you want to get rid of,” she told Stokes on Tuesday. “Everyone else has had to do it. It has to at least be on the table. I still can’t stomach the idea that we want to cut a librarian and not cut someone out of the district office.”
Wilson saw the suggestion as sour grapes.
“You’ve been after the district office since this whole thing started,” she said, “and I don’t know why.”
Board president Steve Reynolds said he was uncomfortable with the idea of cutting a position just because of location.
“You live in this building so someone’s got to go? I disagree with that,” he said. “We need to look at what job they do and is it vital to the operation.”
Lynette Conrad, board vice president, said it was not a vendetta against the district, but a reaction to constituents to look at district-level positions.
“It’s because we listen to the community,” she said. “It is out there. Whether it’s right or wrong, I think it needs to be addressed.”
A review of district positions is scheduled for the Dec. 11 board meeting.
While Stokes had set an original goal of presenting a working budget to the board by Dec. 11, he said that deadline may need to be pushed.
“Every day since we have started talking about our budget, there have been things that have changed,” he said. “That has caused us to re-evaluate.”
A change in the required investment into the state retirement fund, the Public Employees’ Retirement System, could cost the district between $400,000 and $800,000. A early buyout incentive offered to district employees drew more than 30 applicants.
Those things, among others, will need to be considered, Stokes said. And while the proposed budget continues to serve as the template, he said, it could change.
“It’s too early to tell yet,” he said. “We have to still be willing to consider all aspects available to us. We still have a job to keep our educational programs going.”
The district will not know its exact budget until the Legislature decides the state budget. The school district’s projected funding is about $55 million.