Gibbons calls for changes to public education
In a speech to the state Monday, Gov. Jim Gibbons demanded that lawmakers consider major changes to public education in the special session tentatively set for Feb. 23.
Pointing out that education consumes 54 percent of the state’s general fund budget, Gibbons said, “We can’t solve a $1 billion hole in a $6 billion budget if half of that budget is off the table.”
He said 142 of Nevada’s 613 public schools qualify as “the worst schools in the nation,” and that more money won’t help fix those schools.
His solution, he said, is to “quit throwing money at programs that haven’t worked and don’t work for our children.”
The prime examples he cited in his speech are class size reduction and full-day kindergarten.
Gibbons said he won’t eliminate those programs, just remove the mandates imposing them on districts.
“If a local school board decides a program works for their kids, they can do it.”
Gibbons also urged lawmakers to approve a voucher system under which parents could get 75 percent of the per pupil amount public school students are funded at and use it at an educational institution they choose. He said that would put parents in charge of their children’s education and free up the
25 percent to be used elsewhere.
Carson School District Superintendent Richard Stokes said Tuesday that while superintendents are encouraged by Gibbons’ push to give them more control over how they use state money, they are worried about some parts of his reform.
“One size fits all,” Stokes said, doesn’t work because the districts are so different.
Certain cuts would hurt different districts. In the Carson district, for example, “We would be really hurt if we lose hold harmless.”
That section of the law prevents the state from reducing a district’s per-pupil funding for a full year after it shows a decline in enrollment, giving the district time to adjust staffing.
Stokes said he hopes the budget crisis will bring creative solutions.
“People when they get in a bind are really creative,” he said. “I’m hoping those creative juices are really flowing.”
Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford, D-Las Vegas, said Gibbons’ voucher plan is “ill conceived and unconstitutional.”
Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley, D-Las Vegas, termed the speech a lost opportunity and charged that the education proposals seem unlikely to improve education in Nevada.
The tone of the speech put a damper on the veneer of cooperation between Gibbons and legislative leadership.
He said his proposed budget “imposed no new taxes and allowed no expansion of state government.”
“The Nevada Legislature disregarded my solution. They raised taxes $1 billion and they made government bigger. They made the wrong call.
“I planned responsibly. They gambled on new taxes and we all lost.”
Now, he said, the state is facing a $1 billion shortfall.
Sen. Bill Raggio, R-Reno, criticized Gibbons for blaming the state’s crisis on tax increases approved by lawmakers.
“Nowhere in his message did the governor suggest we repeal those temporary tax increases,” he said. “If we did that, we’d be looking at twice the number of cuts so let’s stop pointing fingers.”
Sen. Bob Coffin, D-Las Vegas, joined Raggio saying he was surprised at the attack on lawmakers.
“I believe we should keep this as non-political as possible,” he said.
Gibbons confirmed his plan includes laying off “several hundred state workers.”
“We are doing everything possible to absorb people into other positions helping in our safety-net of programs, assisting those in need, but some layoffs are inevitable.”
Gibbons said his plan also shuts down the 138 year old Nevada State Prison.
“It has outlived its usefulness. It is no longer safe and its operating costs are far too high.”
He said health care programs must also be cut back but promised that “I will protect programs that protect our youngest and most vulnerable citizens.”
Horsford said the Gibbons plan is unacceptable. He said the right thing to do is ensure that mining and other businesses and industries pay their fair share of existing taxes and fees. The Department of Taxation has estimated the state is owed hundreds of millions in unpaid taxes. He said management contracts, and services need to be cut back, some services available only four days a week, buildings and departments shut down when necessary.
Both Horsford and Gibbons called for investment in growth and economic expansion in the future. Gibbons said Nevada can become the recycling center for the nation, turning upwards of 75 percent of garbage back into useful materials and products. He also said that program might generate some fee revenue.
In addition, he said he is in discussions with the mining industry over potentially increasing revenues to the state. He declined to give details.