Las Vegas Sun

October 22, 2017

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School District asks parents for input on potential cuts


Richard Brian

From left, Twitchell Elementary school students Madison Biesinger, 5, James Martin, 5, Hayden Burr, 5, Michael Anderson, 6, and Dominic Lombardo, 7, react to Mad Scientist Dianna “Dynamic” Paul during the school’s first Spectacular Science Night on Oct. 21.

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So far, Clark County public schools have cut $133 million by putting off expansion of empowerment schools, full-day kindergarten and gifted and talented education and canceling new programs such as assistance for students struggling with proficiency exams.

Now further cuts would come from programs that would affect students, School District officials say. Anticipating that more cuts are in their future, they are asking parents what should be trimmed first.

In the meantime, Schools Superintendent Walt Rulffes has asked principals to consider 3.5 percent cuts at the school level and the School District's central administrative staff to look at 12 percent cuts.

Two meetings have been set for Tuesday and Wednesday nights to gather parents' comments, and on the School District show "School Matters," Rulffes and other officials took phoned-in questions from the public about budgets and finances.

After the town hall meetings Tuesday and Wednesday, School District staff will come up with recommendations to bring to the School Board in December, Jeff Weiler, the School District's chief financial officer, said.

Gov. Jim Gibbons has told state agencies, including school districts, to come up with estimates of how additional cuts of 4 percent, 7 percent or 11 percent would affect them. That could amount to additional cuts of $27 million up to $75 million from this school year, Weiler said.

Scott Bailey, principal of Keith and Karen Hayes Elementary School in Summerlin, said schools are now looking at eliminating people.

"If you took general cuts and cut everything that's textbooks, field trips, supplies, you still wouldn't be able to cut 3.5 percent," he said. "It has to be staff."

Basic High School Principal David Bechtel said he expects further cuts would mean larger class sizes. Classes that cater to a small population of students, such as honors and Advanced Placement courses, could also be on the chopping block, he said.

"I worry about my kids, and I worry about what's happening next month," he said.

Many other issues are being considered, School District officials said. Some include eliminating a $200 supply card all teachers are given, instituting four-day school weeks, doing away with block scheduling and requiring pay-for-play for sports and activities.

"It's a real struggle when 85 percent of our budgets goes to salaries, so there's only 15 percent we can work with," School Board member Carolyn Edwards said.

The $200 supply card each teacher receives was started by Rulffes three years ago. Many teachers dip into their salary to pay for classroom supplies, so the $200 helps with that costs. Pulling the cards would save $4 million across the School District.

"It's something that we very reluctantly would pull back on," Weiler said.

In transportation, high school students who live between two and three from school may have to walk instead of taking the bus. Lower gas prices are already saving $600,000 per month, Jim McIntosh, director of the accounting department, said.

A four-day school week is not as cost efficient as parents have proposed, Rulffes said, and it could provide additional challenges for parents who work Monday through Friday and would be required to find child care once a week. Additionally, it would cut several days from the school year, he said.

Block scheduling is something that could potentially save $11 million if it were dropped, but, Rulffes said, there are some strong advocates of the eight-period schedule, which gives students the opportunity to make up credits if they are deficient or take additional courses.

Paying for sports and activities is one option, Weiler said, but so is reducing the number of games played or events attended. If students pay a fee to participate, it would be on a sliding scale so all students can be involved regardless of household income, he said.

"We would not want to preclude a student that couldn't afford to pay," Weiler said. "It's not a popular thing but it would allow us to maintain it."

Vennita Wilson, parent of an Elton Garrett Middle School student, said she cannot support cuts in sports and activities.

"For some kids, that's their only outlet," she said. "I think they can cut more administratively."

The 12 percent cut Rulffes ordered in administration amounts to $32 million and 280 positions, Weiler said.

After discussing the situation with Garrett Junior High School Principal Jamey Hood, Wilson said one of her greatest concerns was the possibility of the School District cutting a line item as opposed to allowing principals the flexibility to make the cuts themselves.

"We fear the School Board is just going to arbitrarily across the district say the schools have to cut this," she said. "North Las Vegas schools have different needs than Boulder City schools."

District officials have heard the call for flexibility, Weiler said.

"That's what we're hearing from them, and it's something we as a district support as much as possible," he said.

Some principals have also argued that various school levels have different needs. At the elementary level, for example, the only things that can be cut are staffing or instructional supplies, Deborah Harbin, principal at Elise L. Wolff Elementary School, said. Any additional programs, such as after school activities, are paid for by parents.

"No matter what we cut, it's going to affect us," she said.

John R. Beatty Elementary School PTA President Natalie Carter said she recently met with PTA members from Roger Gehring, James Gibson, Charlotte Hill and Louis Wiener Jr. elementary schools to come up with ideas and present a united front at the town hall meetings.

They decided block scheduling could be cut, she said.

The group also discussed eliminating the regional superintendent offices, she said.

The group was adamantly against larger class sizes, she said.

"We don't want to see students added to classrooms," she said. "The classrooms are already overpopulated. It's not worth it."

Hayes Elementary School principal Hayes said the meetings to discuss the cuts weren't easy on parents or staff.

"The initial response from parent groups was 'We're tired of cutting. No more cuts period,'" he said.

To balance its budget without affecting the schools, the School District is considering dipping into its rainy day fund, which amounts to 2 percent of the total budget set aside in case of emergency.

As a temporary answer, the fund will be reduced for only this year to 1 percent, or $83 million, Jim McIntosh, director of the accounting department, said during a Nov. 5 School Board special session.

The 2 percent is already much lower than similar school districts across the nation, McIntosh said, and a further cut would affect the School District's bond rating, which determines how much it pays to borrow money.

"We are very quickly getting to a point where we are removing all safety nets from the district," he said. "That leaves no margin of error in 2009."

The issue will be discussed during a Dec. 11 regular board meeting to allow for public feedback.

Frances Vanderploeg can be reached at 990-2660 or [email protected]. Ashley Livingston can be reached at 990-8925 or [email protected].

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