Las Vegas Sun

November 29, 2023

Education in forefront of upcoming budget battle

Brian Sandoval

Brian Sandoval

Heidi Gansert

Heidi Gansert

Sun Coverage

It’s unusual for a governor to approach budget cuts with the premise that the state’s beleaguered education system needs to make significant sacrifices.

But Gov. Brian Sandoval has done just that, parting ways with his predecessors who wanted the title of “Education Governor.”

Since the campaign, Sandoval has warned he would cut education dollars — education gets the largest share of the budget, after all.

True to his word, he is proposing not only to cut about $625 million from kindergarten through 12th-grade education, but to shrink by 1 percent the share of state spending dedicated to elementary, middle and high schools. (Higher education’s portion of the budget would shrink even more, by nearly 2.5 percent.)

Sandoval has declared his No. 1 priority to be economic development — the only way the state can rescue its troubled budget in the long-term, he argues.

Meanwhile, proponents of a tax increase are casting education in economic-development terms, arguing: The state’s education system, long ranked near the bottom by key measures, is one of the chief reasons businesses don’t come to Nevada.

The governor and his staff say they are cutting education in a way that won’t hurt performance because they have proposed reforms to how education is delivered.

When asked how Sandoval reconciles cutting education with his plans for economic development, Sandoval’s chief of staff, Heidi Gansert, said the trick is to direct cuts at salaries and benefits, not classrooms.

“We’re trying to look at what’s fair and what’s parity with all state employees, and that’s where most of the cuts are (to salaries and benefits),” she said last week. “We’re budgeting to make the employees like other employees.”

It’s a politically savvy way to present education cuts to a business community genuinely concerned about the quality of the state’s education system, and a group that has been fighting for years to cut government employee benefits.

Sandoval can argue he’s asking teachers and other school employees to join in the sacrifices of pay that state employees and many in the private sector have made during the recession.

Indeed, when you look at the numbers, 73 percent of Sandoval’s $625 million education cut is directed at salary and benefits. He wants teachers to take a 5 percent pay cut and make 25 percent of the retirement contribution that districts shoulder.

But there are the numbers, and then there is reality.

Because of collective bargaining rights, Sandoval can’t force school districts to impose either cut. He can simply reduce the overall funding and say, “I hope you do this.”

Most school employee associations are beginning contract negotiations for the next fiscal year, which begins July 1. Some are in the middle of multiyear contracts, which both the districts and the unions would have to agree to reopen to make salary concessions.

District officials and teacher union representatives say it’s highly unlikely that the majority of education cuts would end up coming from salaries and benefits. They’ve warned of layoffs, program eliminations and bigger class sizes.

“Even if we do all those things (the governor is asking), that would still leave us $38 million that we would have to find an answer for,” said Heath Morrison, Washoe County superintendent.

Morrison, who serves on Sandoval’s transition team and said the governor is sincerely dedicated to improving education in Nevada, argued it’s unrealistic to believe reducing salaries wouldn’t have an effect on the quality of education.

“When we are asking our teachers and principals to take cuts, it does impact the classroom,” Morrison said, “particularly if some of our very talented teachers and principals decide they can get more pay somewhere else. It’s hard to ask them to stay. So it does impact the quality, no doubt.”

Both school officials and union reps said salary concessions will be part of upcoming negotiations throughout the state.

“I don’t question the governor’s intentions or his belief that the budget he presented is somehow what’s best for Nevada,” said Gary Peck, executive director of the Nevada State Education Association. “I do question his judgment and his choices.

“And those choices are very likely to include some combination of cuts in programs, reductions in force and, I think it’s fair to say, a serious sort of butting of heads over salary issues.”

How well Sandoval makes his argument could strongly influence the position of business leaders throughout the state as they gauge whether to support his budget or push for a tax increase to better fund education.

“Many businesses have had to cut salaries or affected layoffs or suspended pension contributions,” said Billy Vassiliadis, a top lobbyist for several industries, including gaming. “So there is a sense that we’ve all got to tighten a little bit. But do they think this is all going to be done on salaries? Nobody feels convinced that these are not programmatic cuts.”

And that means: Game on.

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