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Home > Featured > School district trustees, staff grapple with uncertainty

School district trustees, staff grapple with uncertainty

By Eric Marks
WCSD Board Meeting on Zoom

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The Washoe County School District Board of Trustees called to order their regular meeting March 31 with district officials and student representatives all in attendance, but the meeting was far from regular.

Although the meeting kicked off with the usual roll call and pledge of allegiance, it was the first virtual meeting for the Board conducted using Zoom conference software, and it was clear the concern and uncertainty the COVID-19 scourge was having a tremendous impact on the district’s already complicated system.

Constantly expressing their concern for everyone involved, board members at times appeared exhausted from the toll of the health crisis, while simultaneously maintaining hope, leadership and optimism.

They also strove to conduct business as normally as possible, reading public comments submitted by email and raising hands to visually cue one another at times. The meeting experienced minimal technical difficulties.  

Superintendent situation

The meeting’s agenda focused primarily on budget matters and fund summaries, but discussion also touched on the district’s superintendent search, which has been underway since the June 2019 release of Traci Davis.

Kristen McNeill, deputy superintendent, Washoe County School District.
Kristen McNeill, interim superintendent, Washoe County School District.

Trustee Andrew Caudill admitted the board favored current interim superintendent Dr. Kristen McNeill and moved for trustees to end the search and add McNeill’s appointment to the next meeting’s agenda.

Perhaps wearied by what some called the “catastrophic” health situation the community faces, Caudill cited the move as being in the best interest of the district’s staff and students. The motion was immediately seconded by District B Trustee Ellen Minetto.

Student representative Nathan Noble also supported the move, saying it would “massively help to stabilize things from a student perspective.”

Vice President Dr. Angie Taylor, however, put the brakes on the decision, suggesting the board wait another 30 days to ensure the new leadership “every opportunity to be successful.”

Board President Malena Raymond, not wanting to walk away from the district’s investment in the search, added that “JG Consulting has done a tremendous amount of work and dedication to the search.”

The district’s Chief General Counsel Neil Rombardo, who also wanted to end the search, pointed out a technical reason the board could not appoint McNeill, citing agenda guidelines (241- 0.355): “anytime you consider a Chief Executive, their name must go on the agenda first.”

He also presented the legalities with McNeill’s opportunity to be heard in addition to and the board’s “consideration of her character.”

“The worst part of your day”

Facing budget contingencies, Chief Financial Officer Mark Mathers promised there was a plan in place before presenting the board members with the district’s tentative budget, which he noted would be “the worst part of your day.” The budget is required by law to be submitted to the state by April 15 each year.

Having revised and surveyed the FY21 budget proposal (Fiscal Year 2021), Budget Director Mike Schroeder explained: “We have to make the budget match up to the accounting world.”

What was initially projected as a $4 million deficit was revised to about $750,000 after revised salary projections, revenue changes and “better information on revenues.”

Screengrab of budget numbers, in millions, presented at the March 31 WCSD Board of Trustees meeting.

The key focus of the FY21 budget was approximately $6 million in new textbooks, the cost of which would be offset through revenue changes, financing options and a proposed 1.81 percent additional increase in property tax revenues. Schroeder also presented the summary of general funds sources and uses, which offered side-by-side comparisons of the FY20 final and adjusted budgets, in comparison to the tentative FY21 budget.

Acknowledging unpredictability as a standard part of operations for any projected budget, Mathers side-noted that the amount of “very significant unknowns” involved for 2021 “takes the cake” due to the current health crisis the department faces. Decreased revenues and investment earnings along with recession concerns are all greatly impacting the district’s ability to operate as usual.

Mathers was well prepared for discussion and strategies for the board, though. He addressed the Incline Village Property Tax Lawsuit, enrollment unknowns and the tremendous fiscal impact the Coronavirus and possible recession would have on the district — concerns shared by all in attendance.

The lawsuit, which “compels the county to refund taxes that were collected more than 15 years ago by the County Treasurer” total $19,000,000 in refunds owed by WCSD.

All refunds were ordered by judgement to be distributed within one year, effective October 2019.

More uncertainties

Another problematic unknown for the district are the fiscal impacts from COVID-19. Deeply concerned by “so many unknowns” to this current situation,” Mathers said he would “feel silly putting any numbers on the screen.”

However, he used cost data and described processes for deep cleaning related to other highly contagious illness to illustrate potential costs.

The deep cleaning costs for Norovirus is a 400 percent increase over the standard cleaning process for Influenza, which is in the range of $25,000 per high school.

Mathers also presented savings the district can use for its aggressive campaign in ensuring the safety of students from reduced travel, a general slowdown in operating expenses and hiring freezes.

The COVID-19 situation also presents hurdles to distance learning programs, where the district is incurring maintenance costs for its equipment. Some of the programs’ necessary equipment, such as printers, require constant maintenance. Mathers explained the district is working in conjunction with both the state and University of Nevada, Reno to ensure student services are not interrupted.

The estimated cost “is significant” Mathers said, affecting the nutrition services enterprise fund as well, which is continuing to pay salary and benefits to all its employees per direct order from the governor.

The program is not receiving federal reimbursements for meals served–to the degree from when the schools were open– and expected a loss to the fund to reach “seven figures.”

Federal assistance is being provided through the new CARES Act Economic Relief Plan, which provides $13.5 billion in federal aid to schools with grades K-12.

Washoe County is estimated to receive $10-12 million in funding. Mathers was optimistic and grateful for the temporary assistance.

Support This Is Reno’s COVID-19 news coverage

We are reporting daily on how the coronavirus is impacting the Reno area. This coverage is outside of our paywall, provided free of charge. Please help us continue by becoming a subscriber or contributing a tax-deductible donation to our COVID-19 news fund. Any amount is appreciated.

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