Washoe County School District trustees Tuesday approved a preliminary budget with about $4.2 million in cuts for the next fiscal year that include eliminating a few dozen positions and increasing elementary and middle school walk zones.
“Budget reductions were proposed by departments and represent management’s professional judgment on how to achieve savings with the least impact,” a report to district staff said.
Proposed budget reductions were then scored by the district’s leadership team and a financial review committee on several criteria, including how well cuts aligned with the district’s strategic plan, degree of impact to district instruction, risk assessment, fiscal impact, and availability of alternative delivery service.
A tentative budget is due April 15 to the Nevada Department of Taxation. A final budget is due July 5.
The district’s general fund budget is $472.6 million. Of that amount, 90.25 percent are for salaries and benefits, 2.77 percent are for instructional materials, 2.43 percent are for utilities and 1.26 is on transportation, followed by smaller components.
Mike Schroeder, district budget director, said most positions being eliminated would be done through attrition, retirements, or by placing some employees in other roles.
English Language Learners
The district considered eliminating 10 teaching positions serving English language learners. Such teachers float among 30 schools, most which are non-Title I and have a low percentage of students qualifying for the program.
“Those 10 teachers might not be losing jobs but their positions are going away, and that equals reductions in service,” Trustee Veronica Frenkel said. “It’s a small program getting a significant hit.”
Debra Biersdorff, district chief academic officer, said the plan at those 30 schools is to keep English language learners in their regular classrooms and have facilitators co-teach. This is instead of pulling the children out of art, music, or physical education for separate instruction.
“Students will get it throughout their instructional day,” Biersdorff said. “I foresee strong partnerships and relationships.”
District staff suggested the new approach because the current program hasn’t been successful.
Trustees agreed to try the new program but to retain the positions.
Trustee John Mayer asked Schroeder if the district has seen any financial gain from Nevada’s recreational marijuana tax.
“I see lines and lines of people going to buy marijuana,” Mayer said.
Schroeder said funds from the marijuana tax go into state coffers. Recreational use of the drug was legalized by voters during the 2016 election.
“So when the state divides our per pupil amount, the per pupil amount is made up of one-third ad valorem taxes, the school support tax, and the difference the state makes up,” Schroeder said. “So the state makes that up through a number of different sources. A small component of those sources is the marijuana tax. It’s relatively small. It’s just included in that amount. We don’t break out the state amount by all its different sources.”
Trustee Debra Feemster compared the situation to legalized gambling in New Orleans. When proposed, she said it was to benefit schools but promises fell short. Mayer then said the district should get specific data regarding the marijuana tax.
“Wouldn’t it be nice if we could look at this and see, ‘Oh, this is going to be a 10 percent increase in revenue projections due to the marijuana tax?’” Mayer said.
“Of course it would,” Schroeder said. “But the other part of that is whether there is an increase. Is the state really contributing more or is it offsetting it with another source?”
Superintendent Traci Davis said the budget needs to be balanced based on current resources, although more effective monitoring and lobbying in Carson City are necessary. The next regular session of the Nevada Legislature convenes in early 2019.
“Here we sit. We’re losing teachers and all these things and they’re sitting on money that could be allocated,” Mayer continued. “Judging from the use of marijuana increasing, it would probably fund all the positions you’re proposing to cut. They’ve been collecting money since last July. It’s a shame.”
Increasing walk zones by a quarter mile each in elementary and middle school was also approved. Currently, elementary students are eligible for bus service if they’re more than 1 mile from campus. Middle school students must be 2 miles from campus to be bus eligible.
“For a half million in savings, you’re going to put kids in danger,” Mayer said.
During budget town hall meetings, the public was more in favor of increasing walk zones than of other proposed cuts, board president Katy Simon Holland said.
Transportation director Rick Martin said children would be bussed if there are safety obstacles and that those who live on the border of being bus eligible could walk a quarter mile to the nearest bus stop.
The action would remove between eight and 10 full-time driver positions and save between $300,000 and $375,000 in salary and benefits, along with an additional $120,000 in fuel, repairs, maintenance and labor.
A 50 percent reduction in travel for district staff is also planned, along with a 7.4 percent cut to central services and salary freezes for district-level administrators in non-bargaining positions.
Carla has an undergraduate degree in journalism and more than 10 years experience as a daily newspaper reporter. She grew up in Jacksonville, Fla., moved to the Reno area in 2002 and wrote for the Reno Gazette-Journal for 8 years, covering a variety of topics. Prior to that, she covered local government in Fort Pierce, Fla.