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School district addresses community questions during budget forum

By Jeri Chadwell

A virtual budget forum for the Washoe County School District was streamed live on YouTube Wednesday night, giving the community an opportunity to ask questions about how the district is using the funding allocated to it.

School Board President Angie Taylor started the forum off explaining why only some of the school board members were present, including the board’s clerk, Ellen Minetto, and its vice president, Andrew Caudill. Taylor said all of the trustees who weren’t present were watching from home.

In recent weeks, many critics of the school district have claimed the school board is silencing Trustee Jeff Church. These critics often show up to school board meetings to criticize the district’s policies surrounding sexual education and anti-discrimination and have become increasingly disruptive in recent months. For the budget forum, the district had no in-person participation from the public and took only written question submissions, something it will continue with its next board meeting on April 13.

The tone of the forum was subdued as Chief Financial Officer Mark Mathers and Budget Director Jeff Bozzo gave updates on the district’s fiscal situation. For now, they said, the district has submitted a balanced tentative budget to the state. It’s the third year in a row that the district has achieved a balanced budget after having overspent several times in the years prior. 

However, there is still a lot happening at the state legislature, including a slate of bills that could affect the district and talk among the legislators of going against Gov. Steve Sisolak’s recommendation to phase in a new funding model over the course of several years.

The new pupil-centered funding plan for K-12 education in Nevada will replace the more than half-century old Nevada Plan. District officials have said a new funding model is needed but are not pleased with the details of the one that may now be implemented as early as July of this year.

Mathers said among the district’s biggest concerns with the new model is a cost-of-living calculation, the formula for which somehow ranks Washoe County as among the most affordable places in the state to live. 

He said the district has been and continues to be in talks with the legislatively-created commission on school funding about its Nevada Cost of Education Index, which takes into account factors like prevailing wages, the cost of health care, energy and internet service among other things in determining “regional cost adjustments.”

Mathers ended the budget presentation by stressing that K-12 education is severely underfunded in Nevada.

“As most of you know, Nevada and Washoe County School District pale in comparison to just the national average [for funding]—not the maximum, but the average,” he said. “So, the average per pupil funding across the nation is $12,056. That compares, again, to the average Nevada spending … of $9,200 or so. 

“We’re roughly 30% below the average nationally. That’s about $3,500 per pupil that we’re below the national average, and multiply that by our 62,000 students. That’s a shortfall of $221 million. … I know all of you can imagine what $221 million would do in terms of hiring additional teachers and lowering our class sizes.”

Frequent questions addressed

Many of the questions addressed during the panel were ones that have become perennial in recent years.

A question often asked by Washoe County residents is why the school district is not receiving cannabis sales tax revenue that was earmarked for education when pot was legalized in the state. It’s a common misconception that schools aren’t receiving these funds.

“One of the really positive aspects of the 2019 legislature was they voted to actually move those cannabis tax revenues into the distributive school account,” Mathers said. “It was going to the state’s general fund and not to schools, but in 2019 they corrected that.”

He explained it was these funds that helped cover a 3% cost-of-living increase for district teachers in 2020.

Another frequently asked question is if the district is looking into investments in renewable energy like solar to help power schools.

Chief Operating Officer Pete Etchart explained that in recent years the district has relied more and more on solar power.

Etchart said the district has installed 4,200 kilowatts of solar panels on 36 schools since 2008—adding that in 2020 these generated a little under 7 million kilowatt hours of electricity, accounting for about 12% of the district’s total electricity use and saving it a little under $6 million.

“So, the district definitely continues to explore more solar photovoltaic opportunities through private entities and in partnerships with NV Energy,” he said.

Asked why the school district does not eliminate more administrator positions, like assistant principals and deans when faced with financial woes resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, Superintendent Kristin McNeill and Deputy Superintendent Debra Biersdorff pointed back to Mather’s presentation, noting that Nevada and WCSD already ranks below the national average in the number of administrators and stressed the support roles these employees play in things like teacher assessments and managing school safety.

“It also helps with our pipeline,” McNeill said. “We want the highest qualified administrators in our schools as leaders, and that really helps us with our pipeline.”

Equity has been a common theme in discussions surrounding the district’s curricula. As the district continues building new schools using funds raised since the 2016 passage of the WC-1 ballot question, families have also begun asking about equity in physical school spaces and what will be done to improve older schools.

“That’s what we’re trying to catch up on now, and that can mean anything from paving a parking lot to replacing an entire school, like we’re doing at O’Brien Middle School right now,” Etchart explained. “So, our main focus going forward is really going to be … on those older schools and making sure that we try our best to make sure that every student has the same classroom experience, whether you’re going to an older school or a new school. It’s going to take some time. We said that from the get-go, but that is our goal—is to make sure that all of our schools get the attention they need.”

Caudill ended the panel with an assurance that any unanswered questions would be followed up on and a request for families to fill out a survey on the district’s website concerning how federal stimulus funds should be used.

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