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June 30, 2015

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Governor’s adviser weighs in on fixes for education system

Lobbyist Pete Ernaut

Lobbyist Pete Ernaut

One of Gov. Brian Sandoval’s closest advisers says Nevada’s education system must be fixed, including penalizing poor teachers and principals and creating fewer rural school districts.

Nevada has “a confused and bureaucratic system that is not serving students, parents, teachers or administrators well,” said Pete Ernaut, who has had the governor’s ear since their days at UNR and served in the Legislature with him.

In an interview this week, Ernaut said:

• The state education system’s biggest problem is that it doesn’t allow for underperformers to be penalized or removed. He would support millions of dollars for computer systems to allow for greater accountability for teachers, principals and schools.

• The state should consider consolidating the 16 school districts other than Clark County (where three-quarters of students live).

• The public school system, including Clark County, should use construction money for operating expenses at a time when few, if any, schools are being built. He said there might be hundreds of millions of dollars available.

• He does not think the Clark County School District, as it contends, faces a nearly $200 million budget deficit, even before the state considers funding cuts to help balance the overall budget.

• The Nevada System of Higher Education should be given greater freedom to raise tuition and other student fees, thereby allowing it greater autonomy from the state in how it spends money.

• Cuts may hurt professors, but they should remember they got generous contracts and benefits for the past 20 years.

• The popular Millennium Scholarship will need more private funding because revenue from its principal source, tobacco taxes, is falling. Eligibility standards, such as GPAs, may have to be raised.

Now is the time, with school officials able to step back from the rush of construction, to address these fundamental issues, Ernaut said.

“Up until 2007, education in Nevada was a significant challenge, mainly due to growth,” he said. “I don’t think Nevada ever got a chance to plan our education system. It was more triage than anything else.

“If there’s a silver lining to this Great Recession, it’s our ability to exhale, take a moment and really look at what’s broken and see what needs to be fixed.”

Ernaut emphasized that he did not speak for Sandoval, but has spent much of his adult life developing views on education.

Ernaut, who was former Gov. Kenny Guinn’s chief of staff, is a principal at R&R Partners, a dominant marketing and lobbying firm, and was an adviser in Sandoval’s campaign for governor.

Jeff Weiler, the district’s chief financial officer, said that using construction funds for general operating expenses, as Ernaut proposes, would trigger legal issues.

Moreover, a large portion of that money, nearly $500 million, is for debt service. “We have to pay the mortgage,” Weiler said.

Dan Klaich, higher education chancellor, said he agrees with the argument for greater system autonomy so public colleges and universities could manage their own money, such as raising tuition and charging different fees for different majors.

“But that transition can’t be just pushing us off a cliff,” Klaich said. “I understand where all this is going, but we have got to be careful.”

Ruben Murillo, president of the Clark County Education Association, the union that represents most of the district’s teachers, disagrees with Ernaut’s statement on bad teachers.

“He obviously has not been informed of systems already in place that address underperforming teachers,” Murillo said.

Here are excerpts from Ernaut’s interview with the Sun:

What do you mean by more accountability?

The single biggest challenge is that it doesn’t allow for underperforming teachers and administrators and others to be weeded out of the system.

Experts say it would cost $20 million to pay for computer databases to provide greater accountability. Is it worth it?

It’s a very important goal. It’s pretty hard to manage what you don’t have data on. Twenty-million dollars is not a huge amount when you consider $1.3 billion is spent on K-12.

Why do you want to use money for operating expenses that is set aside for school construction?

If you’re the taxpayer and there are millions, and in some cases hundreds of millions of dollars, in a capital account when there are no plans, even in the major school districts, to build any new schools, it would seem to me that rather than have schoolteachers laid off or drastic program cuts, you would want to deploy that money. You can’t harm debt service and you shouldn’t use money set aside for maintenance. You don’t want to cut your nose off to spite your face.

What changes do you see in higher education?

There’s an opportunity to create a more autonomous, independent, higher education system, as in many other states. As it exists today, our Board of Regents can’t even set tuition levels without permission from the Legislature. State government can’t continue to fund 80 percent of the university system.

Professors contend that their salaries are being cut, and their health care is significantly more expensive. How do you feel about that?

In the past 20 years, the ... higher education system has enjoyed tremendous growth in revenue support from the state, until the past couple of years. The salary and benefit packages have been generous. So professors have definitely been valued. You can’t have it both ways. When there’s an economic downturn in the state and the state is hurting and they have to make tough but necessary cuts, then you can’t sound the alarm and forget how you’ve been treated for the past 20 years.

What is the future of the Millennium Scholarships that you helped champion?

The future is bright but the scholarships will have to be modified. One of the limitations of the scholarship is that the funding mechanism is the tobacco tax, and that’s going down because people are quitting smoking. I hope this Legislature can endow it. It’s probably the most substantial education program in the history of our state. But the money part of it is a declining asset, and they might have to modify eligibility standards.

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