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School District faces major budget shortfalls

By Eric Marks
Published: Last Updated on

The Washoe County School District held its regular meeting of the Board of Trustees May 12. The six-hour meeting covered school naming, a review of the impacts of COVID-19 and costs for distance education, as well as contract approvals for Superintendent Kristen McNeill, among other agenda items.

The district’s budget was top-of-mind.

Preparing for budget shortfalls as a result of the COVID-19 emergency was at the top of the agenda. Touching on Governor Steve Sisolak’s declaration of a fiscal emergency on May 11, Chief Financial Officer Mark Mathers explained how it signified a  “procedural step,” enabling the district to access its rainy day fund. He said the current state of the district’s funding as “fiscally stressful.”

Mathers also presented the distance learning budget, breaking down the fiscal impacts of COVID-19. By combining actual and estimated costs for distance learning packets and other supplies, it’s estimated the pandemic has so far cost the district more than $535,000. 

Mathers said the school district hopes “these costs can at least be partially offset through CARES Act grants or additional federal stimulus programs.” 

He also acknowledged the savings the district has seen from reductions in power usage and transportation costs.

The presentation featured information concerning the district’s nutrition services fund, which has provided more than 239,000 free meals for students since mid-March. 

a chart showing the impacts of COVID-19 on the WCSD's nutrition services fund
A slide from Mark Mathers’ presentation on COVID-19’s fiscal impact on the school district.

It’s an “Enterprise Fund,” meaning it is expected to “live on its own without general fund support,” and was one of the district’s most productive prior to the pandemic, showing a net profit of $1.2 million as of March 31 of this fiscal year. 

The fund is now suffering extreme losses of approximately $55,000 daily due to staff/meal ratios and less reimbursement revenue, resulting in an estimated loss of nearly $2.8 million between mid-March and the end of June. 

The fund, however, was still positive, Mathers explained, as it started in a “very strong cash position.” 

Other COVID-19 updates included the discussion of the district’s establishment of the COVID-19 Task Force, cancellation of athletic trips and out-of-state travel, and the Governor’s directives for the remainder of the 2020 school year.

Distance learning also a concern

Distance learning concerns were also addressed by the board. 

McNeill laid out a set of guidelines, placing emphasis on ensuring students’ needs are being met during the crisis. She said her expectations for students are “high” and highlighted her guidelines for meeting them, including the distribution of materials, learning packets, devices and supplies. 

She added that it’s “not possible to educate in the same fashion” without a traditional school day but made it clear the district will have the same expectations of students and staff as before the COVID-19 outbreak.

Some parents have said that’s not the case, noting that early on during the stay-at-home orders expectations and procedures for online classes, attendance and coursework weren’t consistent throughout the district.

Chief Academic Officer Debra Biersdorff presented an overview of the mobilization of the distance learning plan, though, saying she was proud of the district’s ability to move quickly into material production at the onset of the pandemic. 

McNeill stressed that a “huge and important part of our distance learning plan revolved around our grading guidance and attendance” remarking that there was “good news” on attendance. 

Chief Accountability Officer Ben Hayes followed McNeill, explaining the procedures that teachers followed to connect with students, as well as data tracking procedures on student attendance. Hayes said the district has reached a 97 percent engagement rate between teachers and students. He described educator efforts as “heroic.”

Superintendent contract approved

The Board also approved a contract for McNeill, who was appointed to the superintendent position at the public meeting on April 28. 

McNeill said she is donating $30,000 of her $265,000 salary back to schools during the 2020-2021 school year. She told the board of trustees that if she is awarded a performance bonus, she wants to ensure it will be divided among all school district employees, citing the teamwork that makes all district work possible on behalf of its 64,000 students and more than 8,000 staff members.

Galena High School Graduation
2017 graduates from Galena High School. Photo: WCSD

Graduation plans mulled

Graduation plans for 2020 was another important topic for the board. 

McNeill said there would be no cancellation of graduation for the class of 2020. 

“It has never been discussed. We do not want to cancel graduation for our wonderful seniors; we’re not going to cancel graduation,” she said. 

McNeill presented a proposal to broadcast graduation ceremonies, explaining each school has the opportunity to craft its own. 

Local ABC affiliate KOLO-TV Channel 8 was approved by the board to televise pre-recorded speeches by principals, district leadership and valedictorians, as well as student speakers and performances. 

Noting the disappointment of students, Sparks High School Principal Kevin Carroll said, “This is one of the best next options or solutions that we have.” 

The solution is one students were openly embracing, Carroll added, noting that it gives remote or secluded family members the chance to watch their loved ones graduate. 

The district embraced the ceremony idea but must still face the challenges of present health requirements. Social distancing and traffic and safety concerns were some of the issues the board discussed. 

School District Chief of Police Jason Trevino presented the difficulties and constraints of graduation ceremonies, citing “human behavior” as the chief logistical concern. 

McNeill stressed the point that, regardless of the logistics, the district “would not be putting our students, our employees or our families in any type of risk.”

School named after former legislator Debbie Smith

Debbie Smith
Debbie Smith

The final item on board’s agenda was naming the CTE (Career & Technical Education) academy at the former Procter R. Hug High School. 

Communications head Irene Payne said the district was “excited” to discuss the new name. 

After narrowing the field to three options—including Dolores Feemster, who served as a counselor at Procter R. Hug High School for more than three decades—the board voted to name the school, the Debbie Smith CTE Academy, after the late Nevada State Senator who passed in 2016. 

Board President Malena Raymond said, “This decision was not an easy one, as both Debbie Smith and Dolores Feemster were staunch advocates for our district, students, families and public education. 

“Both of these outstanding members of our community had an overwhelmingly positive impact on our schools, and both made enduring contributions to our students, families and staff members.” 

She continued to recognize Smith as “a tireless advocate for children and families” and someone who “fought for public education in the Nevada State Senate.”

Procter R. Hug will be retained as the name for the new school being constructed at Wildcreek, which is expected to open in August  2022.

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