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October 6, 2015

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Sun Editorial:

Parity? What’s that?

State budget for higher education system fails to best serve Nevada

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Last August, university system regents passed a budget that was a supposed win for Southern Nevada. Officials talked about the “shift” of funding from northern and rural campuses to the south.

More than $13.2 million of additional money was supposed to go to three southern teaching institutions — UNLV, Nevada State College and CSN. The budget was hailed for bringing a sense of parity to the way the Nevada System of Higher Education funds its schools.

Not that the money was much. For UNLV, it amounted to $3.1 million for the coming fiscal year, a drop or two in the bucket. That wouldn’t restore the years of underfunding, but the plan was heading in the right direction. If nothing else, it was an acknowledgment that things had been broken.

Northern schools were expected to see a decrease in money from the state's general fund. The shocker under the proposal was that estimates showed UNR would lose about $1.2 million. That appeared to be a sign that the status quo was changing. The Nevada System of Higher Education’s funding scheme has long favored the northern campuses, which all draw a larger share of their budgets from the state’s general fund than the southern campuses. They also have received a higher level of funding per student.

But any sense of parity was short-lived. Each time the system office has put out a new analysis of the budget as facts and enrollment figures change, the number coming to Southern Nevada drops. Chancellor Dan Klaich sent a report to the Legislature on April 10 saying the “shift” of funding to Southern Nevada would be $8.8 million.

If $13.2 million was parity, what do you call $8.8 million?

For longtime political observers, the answer is easy: the status quo. Southern Nevada is once again seeing the promises of more funding slowly disappear. The cynics would even suggest — with reason — that the number will likely be shaved even more before the budget is passed.

Under Klaich’s analysis, UNLV and CSN would each see an additional $2.2 million over the current fiscal year. So much for any windfall. Nevada State College would receive the bulk of the shifted money, which may be fitting considering it has been so poor that it had to ask students to raise their fees just to build classroom space, an expense usually borne by the state.

And remember UNR, the crown jewel of the north, losing money? That’s no longer the case. It would stand to gain $2.2 million a year in general fund money. The rural campuses that are set to lose millions of dollars would see their budgets supplemented with money from — where else? — Southern Nevada’s campuses.

Is that parity?

The state has tried to make things fair by using a funding formula for the colleges and universities that allows for comparisons between campuses, so, for example, the funding for an economics class is roughly the same at the universities. But that does not take into account larger equity issues.

The old formula, hijacked by politics, failed to properly distribute state money, and the Legislature asked for a new one. A committee created by the 2011 Legislature spent last year studying various formulas and offered a series of recommendations to bring more fairness to the process. But ideas have been ignored or tossed aside, and what’s now passing for a formula looks no better than the old one. Add to that the budget games that bureaucrats play and the sense of fairness has been undercut.

For example, the schools appear to be about equal in terms of the amount of state general fund money per student they’ll receive under the new formula. But UNR’s budget pushes millions of dollars into accounts not covered by the formula. When all of the state money is counted, UNR would receive more than $1,200 per student more than UNLV.

How’s that fair?

Obviously, it’s not, and it makes a terrible statement, essentially saying students in Northern Nevada are worth more than students here. Surely, that’s not the message state officials want to send.

But the budget seems vacant of any clear policy. And the absence of policy has been replaced by sleight of pencil. The budget’s authors seem to have searched to find a certain bottom line for the various schools without thinking of the implications those numbers would have.

Considering that Southern Nevada is the state’s economic engine with nearly three-quarters of the population, how is undercutting the public colleges and universities that serve the area good for Nevada?

That’s a question lawmakers should ask because what’s often forgotten in the Legislature is this: Neglecting Southern Nevada is neglecting the state’s future.

If lawmakers are serious about higher education, they’ll go back and rework this budget — with more transparency this time — find ways to provide fairly for all the campuses and make sure that Southern Nevada doesn’t get passed over once again.

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