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Parents, educators to Commission on School Funding: Your math is wrong

By Jeri Chadwell

Nevada’s 11-member Commission on School Funding has been meeting for well over a year to hammer out the details and specific calculations for a complete overhaul of the state’s more than half-century old K-12 education funding formula.

The new pupil-centered funding model was set to replace the 1967 Nevada Plan starting in July of this year. However, after an announcement made by Governor Steve Sisolak during his State of the State address, the plan is to phase in the new funding formula now—which is intended to streamline and simplify how money is doled out by the state to fund its 17 school districts.

One continuing bone of contention is the Nevada Cost of Education Index, which aims make “regional cost adjustments” as one factor in the divvying up of education funding by determining the cost of living in each of the state’s school districts. According to calculations being used by the commission, Washoe County is ranked as having among the lowest costs of living in the state—something people in the county have been protesting for the better part of a year now, citing Washoe County’s high housing prices.

The county’s median home prices recently reached half a million dollars. The commission’s calculations also take into account things like prevailing wages, the costs of health care, energy and internet among other things in determining “regional cost adjustments.”

“How does the saying go? Feed a man crumbs long enough, and he’ll forget he deserves a full meal.”

During its Feb. 5 meeting, the Commission on School Funding received more than two dozen public comment submissions. All but three of them were made concerning the cost-of-living calculations made for Washoe County. They were submitted by parents, educators and a former Washoe County School District (WCSD) board of trustees member.

“Regarding your findings, cost of living in Washoe is not as low as was found in the calculation,” wrote parent Chris Pullman. “It has actually been stated that cost of living in Washoe is one of the highest in the state. I’m hoping this is something that can be revisited in your discussion today and in March.”

Pullman noted that the current calculation might leave Washoe County in a “hold harmless” state for multiple years. This is something the majority of other comments mentioned as well. A “hold harmless” situation would mean that the school district would not lose money compared to what it was allocated during the last biennium, but nor would funding be increased.

Former WCSD board of trustees member and now Senior Strategic Advisor for the Economic Development Authority of Western Nevada Katy Simon Holland pointed toward home prices in the region in her comments.

Former WCSD trustee Katy Simon Holland, during a July 2020 tour of Marce Herz Middle School.
Image: Eric Marks

“Washoe county’s median home price just reached $500,000, which is well above Clark County and other areas of the state,” she wrote. “How can a calculation of cost of living or cost of wages ignore this reality and show that Washoe has the lowest index number? The current calculation, for example, shows that Churchill County has higher Nevada Cost of Education Index than Washoe, Douglas or Carson counties. This assertion is clearly not valid on its face.”

Simon Holland criticized the American Community Survey data—which is years old—that she said was used in part for making the determination of Washoe County’s cost of living.

“The survey data is very high level and is already outdated,” she said. “We are doubtful the survey data is a valid basis for these calculations. This data isn’t transparent, easily understandable or based on widely used national comparators. A better approach would be to use U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ published cost of living data, which shows Washoe does, in fact, have the highest cost of living among metropolitan areas in Nevada. We hope you will address this serious inequity at the commission’s earliest convenience. An accurate calculation of Washoe County’s cost of living index will have great consequences for the 62,000 students served by the Washoe County School District.”

Parent Janine Luciani wrote to the commission to note that her son—a high school freshman—has dealt with low education funding throughout his entire school career in Washoe County.

“I know the school district cannot afford any cuts to funding because, even as it is, my son has had huge class sizes and limited educational resources provided to him for his entire school career,” she wrote. “Please revisit this calculation to ensure that we do not further deteriorate our already crumbling education system. I recognize that Nevada has historically underfunded education, but please do not allow our legislators to believe they are doing something good based on an incorrect calculation.”

Calen Evans—a spokesperson and former president of the grassroots Empower Nevada Teachers educational advocacy group started by WCSD educators—said that the new funding plan and the idea of using a weighted metric to fund students across the state was well-intentioned but is being implemented in a flawed way that seems to overlook longstanding under-funding of public education.

“It was implemented with the idea that we should redistribute the current funding we have and then address the overall lack of funding that exists,” he wrote. “This method of implementation would indicate that somehow all of the students across our state aren’t under-funded and under-resourced. And that’s simply not the case. Let’s be very clear—every student and school district across the state is not receiving adequate funding. … By redistributing funds prior to addressing the overall lack of educational funding, we are already taking a very small pie that is not large enough to feed any of our students and divvying it out differently. At the end of the day, we’re still failing all of our students.”

Evans asked commission members in his comments, “How does the saying go? Feed a man crumbs long enough, and he’ll forget he deserves a full meal.”

WCSD educator MJ Ubando

Another educator, MJ Ubando, advised commission members in her written comments that the “math is wrong. The cost-of-living calculation for Washoe County … is incorrect. It has been proven that the cost of living in Washoe County is actually one of the highest in the state.” She said as “both a product and now a teacher of the WCSD,” she could assure the commission that “students cannot afford to lose more. Our teachers cannot take one more cut.”

One educator who wrote comments to the commission noted that, according to her own calculations, she could more easily afford to live on a teacher’s wages in the Bay Area.

The Commission on Education Funding may take up the issue of cost-of-living calculations again at one of its future meetings. It is also expected to make further recommendations to the Nevada Legislature based upon its work. In the meantime, criticisms of its calculations seems likely to consider. The commission has heard multiple times from WCSD Superintendent Kristen McNeill, who, like district employees and parents, is dismayed by Washoe County’s designation as one of the state’s cheaper places to live.

Educators are expected to be in Carson City for a “Red for Ed” rally in front of the legislative building starting at noon on Feb. 15.

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