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August 3, 2015

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Further education cuts spur fear of lawsuits

Adequately funding schools could become constitutional issue

Mo Denis

Mo Denis

The arguments against more cuts in education are blunt: The schools are in bad enough shape. Children are our future. It would be irresponsible.

To that list, Mo Denis, who will be chairman of the Senate Education Committee next year, would add one word: litigation.

If the Legislature cuts too much, he said, “Somebody will probably file a lawsuit and we’re probably going to lose it.”

The lawsuit would likely argue that inadequate funding for schools is unconstitutional. Several such landmark suits, beginning in New Jersey, have been filed across the country and won over the years.

Denis, a computer technician at the Public Utilities Commission, added that many voters think, “With my household budget, if I don’t have any money, I cut back. Why can’t government? If we do that, we get sued. We don’t have a choice.”

And Denis is frustrated that some voters reflexively seek to cut school administrators first.

“Everybody wants accountability, but what does accountability mean?” said Denis, a former head of the Nevada Parent Teacher Association. “You have to generate a report to justify what you’re doing.

“If you have no administrators, you have to have teachers take extra time to fill out paperwork and not use that time to teach.”

The question of how much to cut education is hardly academic.

Fifty-five cents of every dollar of current state spending goes to education — 15 cents for colleges and 40 cents for K-12 (much of it to Clark County).

If, as state budget Director Andrew Clinger projects, the state may fall short as much as $3 billion in a $6.5 billion two-year budget — education cuts will be harsh, even with tax increases.

An assemblyman since 2004, Denis, 49, was born in Brooklyn of Cuban parents. Denis (pronounced “Dennis”) was elected to the Senate this month.

Democrats retain a bare 11-10 majority in the Senate and have held on to a 26-16 majority in the Assembly. Committee chairmen such as Denis — along with Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford and Assembly Speaker-elect John Oceguera — will shape the budget.

In an interview, Denis also said:

• More than $800 million in federal stimulus money won’t be available in this budget cycle to help close the deficit. “It will be much more difficult this time around.”

• “Everything is on the table,” including keeping one-day-a-month furloughs for state workers, which are set to expire and saved up to $500 million in the last budget cycle. Adding a second furlough day, in effect moving toward a four-day workweek for state government, might save hundreds of millions more.

• The Legislature is committed to the $25 million Millennium Scholarships for higher education, but money for them will have to come from other parts of the budget. Much of the scholarship money comes from taxing cigarettes, and fewer people are smoking.

But it’s litigation that weighs on Denis’ mind.

The landmark case in school-finance litigation is Abbott v. Burke, a protracted lawsuit in New Jersey with key court decisions in 1997 and 1998.

The New Jersey court, followed by courts in other states, defined for state legislatures what is adequate school funding for low-income and high-income school districts.

If the Abbott case is the Brown v. Board of Education of school-finance law, then David Sciarra is its Thurgood Marshall. The lead lawyer in the Abbott case, Sciarra is executive director of the Education Law Center in Newark, N.J.

Nevada is ripe for a lawsuit, Sciarra said, but notes that it is one of only five states in which no case challenging the state’s education finance system has ever been filed.

Nevada ranks 39th among states in the law center’s ranking of what it calls school-finance “justice”.

“Nevada is also regressive,” Sciarra said. “The lower the school is in money, the less likely it is to get money. Nevada is very bleak, very unfair, one of the most unfair in the nation.

“You don’t want to have to deal with this in the courts,” Sciarra added. “It’s time consuming.” Abbott, filed on behalf of inner-city students in 1981, did not reach resolution for 16 years.

If Denis must keep his eye on the big picture, he also has his eye on a smaller picture: His wife became a teacher this year.

Susan Denis has been a stay-at-home mother for 24 years for the couple’s five children, ages 8 to 25. She will be 47 next month and got her teaching credential in May.

Her first weeks were hard, and she thought about quitting, she and her husband said. Instead of 26 kindergartners, she had 33 and several students were disruptive.

“You wouldn’t think seven children would make a difference, but you’re just one person,” she said.

Moreover, as in many other Clark County schools, most of the children are Hispanic and their English is limited. Susan Denis doesn’t speak Spanish. “I’m doing a lot of motioning with my hands,” she said.

Eventually, the class size fell by six students because an extra teacher could be hired with federal stimulus money. And she learned coping strategies.

“I fell back on my background as a mother,” she said. Some of the disruptive students moved to other classes, others she moved closer to her. “There’s a lot of comforting needed because they’re away from their mothers.”

The Denises have always been interested in education.

Mo Denis moved to Las Vegas with his parents and siblings in 1967. His mother was a nanny from Havana and his father a college student from Santiago de Las Vegas (in English, St. James of the Meadows), near Havana. The family settled in a largely Hispanic neighborhood near the Stratosphere.

“I used to say that I got involved to make things better for my children,” Denis said. “But then I realized, when I joined the PTA, that I had to make things better for all children.

“Then, in the Legislature I realized it takes 10 years, sometimes more, to make things better, because it’s so piecemeal.

“So now I’m trying to make it better for my grandkids.”

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