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School district plans for balanced budget despite funding challenges

By Kristen Hackbarth

Washoe County School District officials on Monday provided an overview of the district’s proposed budget for the next fiscal year and answered community questions about how it gets and spends its money. 

The message shared was that the district is doing the best it can with very little control over the amount of money it takes in.

Mark Mathers, WCSD’s chief financial officer, said the school district is working with a general fund budget of about $532 million, plus another $500 million for capital improvement. It’s the largest budget in the community, he said, and this year they’ve planned for it to be balanced.

“A lot of folks remember when the district was having a number of financial challenges and think we’re kind of still in that situation where we have a deficit,” Mathers said. “We’ve actually had three straight fiscal years where we’ve had a balanced budget.” 

Fiscal year 2023 will be the fourth year with a balanced budget, which Mathers said points to a “new era of stability and sustainability with our budget.” 

Pupil-centered funding formula reviewed

Despite the initial optimism, however, Mathers and district budget director Jeff Bozzo said there are still challenges to funding education. 

They said fiscal support for K-12 education in the state “has not been strong,” which is reflected in the low per-pupil funding amounts in Nevada. 

“This is what we get from the state and this is what we live with.”

The National Education Association for the 2019-2020 school year (the most recent data available) ranked the state 45th for per pupil funding. Nevada would need to spend at least an additional $4,400 per student to bring spending up to the national average. 

In Washoe County, Mathers said that comes to more than $270 million per school year based on current enrollment. 

“It would make just a transformational kind of change for the school district if the state actually funded schools just at the national average. It’s a big number, but it would do a lot of good, to put it mildly,” he said.

Nevada switched to its pupil-centered funding plan for the most recent school year, pooling revenues from a number of different sources into one large pot that’s then divided out to districts. A formula is used to decide how much per student each district will receive, taking into account things like number of students in special education or gifted and talented programs, size of school district and comparable wages in the district.

Some districts get far more than the national average spent per pupil, such as Eureka County which receives more than $33,000 per student. 

The larger districts – Clark, Washoe and Carson City – are funded lowest.

Washoe County gets the lowest amount per student in the state: $7,318 per pupil. Of that, more than 77% goes directly to classroom instruction and student and school support. The remainder is spent on operations and transportation (nearly 14%) and central services and administration (just over 8%).

Mathers said for the next fiscal year the district will get a 1.3% increase in its funding from the state, but that’s not enough to cover even for inflation. 

“This is what we get from the state and this is what we live with,” he said.

He added that the district plans to challenge parts of the formula during the next legislative session. He said the formula doesn’t take into account Washoe County’s high cost of living and need for higher wages. 

Despite the low funding, Mathers said there is a bright spot: Nevada ranked 18th for academic achievement in the same report that ranked it low for per pupil spending. 

“I think that’s indicative of a really good return on investment,” he said. “Picture how good we would be if we were only funded at the national average.” 

Budget challenges and concerns

Budget director Bozzo said the district’s big budgeting challenge is how to provide education at a consistent level when costs are rising. One example he cited is the need to increase pay for positions such as bus drivers, janitors and nutrition staff to fill vacant positions.

Over the past year, schools also brought on new staff – called learning facilitators – to help with learning recovery needed as a result of the pandemic. These workers are paid for through Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Funds, also known as ESSER. The funding ends after 2024. 

“Then what?” asked Bozzo. 

Some of those positions are likely to be eliminated.

Bozzo also said the district is anticipating ongoing drops in funding as enrollment declines. He described an “enrollment bubble” where the size of incoming classes (kindergarten) are smaller than those of graduating classes (high school seniors). 

Inflation was also high on the list of concerns. One community member asked about rising fuel costs. Bozzo said an extra $850,000 was added to next year’s transportation budget just to account for inflation. 

Insurance costs are up as well, Mathers said, not only because of rising rates within the industry but also because the district now has more schools to insure. 

The district’s next budget work session is scheduled for April 26, with a tentative budget hearing May 24. A final budget must be submitted by June 8. 

Watch the full budget forum at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9ptrdRr30GM.

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