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Trustees eye state budget decisions for class sizes, future enrollment

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The majority of Washoe County elementary schools have class size ratios that are too high, school trustees said yesterday. Washoe County School District’ trustees on Tuesday discussed class sizes along with the 2024 budget and graduation rates at a regular board meeting.

Washoe’s class sizes are larger than state mandate because the state does not fund for those ratios to be met, trustees said. To bring all district elementary schools into compliance with the class size mandates, the district would need to hire an additional 101 teachers with a cost of just over $8 million. 

According to state law, the pupil-per-teacher ratio is set for each grade K-3 for each quarter of the year. For kindergarten, first and second grades, the ratio is 16:1, and for third grade it’s 18:1. 

Current ratios for each grade are 21:1 for kindergarten, 18.1 for first and second grades, and 21.1 for third grade.

WCSD has to ask the state to waive those compliance requirements because it does not have the funding to reduce the class sizes. Each school once per quarter must submit for a variance, explaining why a variance is needed. 

Out of the district’s 65 elementary schools, 60 variances for kindergarten were reported for this quarter. 

A district staff report notes, “this large number of variances is based on historical changes in class size requirements and the level of funding provided to school districts and our district specifically.” 

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WCSD Trustee Beth Smith

Ratios of students to teachers vary across district elementary schools; some had kindergarten class sizes as high as 25, while one school, Elmcrest Elementary in old northwest Reno, had as few as 14 students per teacher. 

The full list per grade can be viewed here

“Although our state board mandates certain ratios, the state does not actually fund to that,” Trustee Beth Smith said. “So our district and all districts are put in the odd position of having to submit for variances. 

“I see sometimes in the news or community that our classrooms are not in ratio … and I want to make it abundantly clear that is because we are not funded to those ratios,” she added. 

Trustees voted unanimously to approve the report. 

Graduation rates discussed

Trustees heard a presentation on graduation rates within the district. 

Overall, graduation rates are still high compared with the past decade. In 2010, only 62% of students achieved graduation; in 2022, that number is at 84%. The highest year was 2019 with 86% of students graduating, with that percentage dropping slightly during the pandemic. 

Broken down by race, the highest graduation rates from 2019-2022 are found within Asian students, ranging from 94% to 97%, and the lowest in American Indian (64% to 81%) and African American (68% to 75%). 

Graduation rates are also lower among Children in Transition (CIT) – or students experiencing homelessness – and Students with IEPs (individualized education program).  

English Learner (EL) students and students qualifying for Free or Reduced Lunch (FRL) are in the highest categories within special populations. EL students over the past four years reported a graduation rate of 74%, while FRL reported 79%. 

Of those students who did not graduate, the district breaks them down into four categories: an adjusted diploma, credit deficient, drop out or vanished. 

A reported 18% of non-graduating American Indian students “vanished,” which is significantly higher than all other race categories. Vanished indicates that students are no longer enrolled at school and not confirmed as having dropped out. 

Similarly, 22% of the CIT students who did not graduate vanished as well. 

Standing against the other Nevada districts, Washoe falls in the center. Districts with the highest graduation rates of over 95% were districts with fewer than 65 students. 

Of the larger districts (more than 1,000 students), State Charter Schools held the highest graduation rate at 86%, and Clark County the lowest at 81%. The overall lowest in Nevada was Mineral County, with a 66% graduation rate. 

The full presentation and statistics are here

Fewer births, higher rents lead to revenue loss 

Trustees heard a presentation regarding the budget process – including what factors could affect the 2024 proposed budget, and budgets in future years. 

Chief Financial Officer Mark Mathers and Budget Director Jeff Bozzo during their presentation said there are a number of “major” factors impacting the 2024 budget. 

The first factor, Mathers said, is the  decrease in birth rates across the country which has continued for decades. In Washoe County, there has been a 41% decline in births since 1990. Larger school districts will be affected with flat enrollment “at best” in future years. 

The second is an increase in housing prices, which, compounded with lower birth rates, prevents the increase of school-aged students within the county.

The district is also losing students to charter and private schools. While there have been increases in both, district enrollment has decreased by 4.3% since the 2018-19 school year. 

Charter schools built over the last 5 years have absorbed all of the enrollment growth from new development, and, along with homeschooling, is causing a decrease in district enrollment. 

The average daily enrollment was 60,777 for the first quarter of 2023 which is 1,146 students fewer than the budgeted average daily enrollment — creating a shortfall of $8.38 million in per pupil funding received. 

There is also a “cluster” of grade levels with a higher than average enrollment, now in grades 9-12, spanning from 5,000 to 5,400. The number of incoming kindergarten students, however, is only projected at 4,400, leaving an overall 600 student gap for the next four years. The cumulative impact is a loss of nearly 3,000 students, and a revenue shortfall of $21.8 million. 

What this data means is that, unless the district sees a reversal in enrollment, it will, as Mathers and Bozzo said, “necessitate reviewing all operations for potential reductions.” 

If per-pupil funding is increased by $250 per pupil, a 3.4% increase, the shortfall would be eliminated. 

he governor’s recommended budget will be released later this week. Itwill tell the district how the state has determined to use additional revenues, answer questions around base per-pupil funding versus weighted funding, and it will indicate whether or not the state followed intentions regarding the general fund commitment and increases in per-pupil funding. 

Trustees will be updated monthly on the state’s budget process as it continues in  the legislative session which begins in February. 

School improvements approved 

Trustees voted to approve construction contract bids to provide improvements to three high schools. 

The projects:

  1. Roof replacement at Galena High School. The contract was awarded to Commercial Roofers for $2.13 million.
  1. Roof replacement at Robert McQueen High School. The contract was awarded to Western Single Ply for $903,725. 
  1. Stadium track and irrigation improvements at Sparks High School. The contract was awarded to Spanish Springs Construction for $1.32 million.

Trustees also approved the purchase of Promethean Brand Classroom “Activpanels” and associated hardware for $6.8 million. This includes more than 1,500 individual devices to replace the oldest panels first, some of which are over 15 years old. The recommended life of the panels is approximately 8 years, according to Chief Facilities Management Officer Tami Zimmerman. 

Funding comes from the Nevada’s Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds. 

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Kelsey Penrose
Kelsey Penrose
Kelsey Penrose is a proud Native Nevadan whose work in journalism and publishing can be found throughout the Sierra region. She received degrees in English Literature and Anthropology from Arizona State University and is currently pursuing a Masters in Creative Writing with the University of Nevada, Reno at Lake Tahoe. She is an avid supporter of high desert agriculture and rescue dogs.

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