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November 20, 2017

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Hardball: Battle looms for Clark County lawmakers seeking school funding


Leila Navidi

All the kindergarten students at Elizondo Elementary School eat lunch together in North Las Vegas Thursday, September 29, 2011.

Clark County legislators say they’ll make a push this year to get more money for local schoolchildren.

But they could have to play political hardball to get it.

Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval has said he’ll veto any new taxes, so southern legislators may begin to threaten to shake down northern school districts and send northern dollars south in an effort to leverage enough votes to override a Sandoval veto.

“If people aren’t willing to talk, that definitely needs to be on the table,” said Senate Majority Leader Mo Denis, D-Las Vegas, of the strategy. “If we don’t want to talk about adequacy in the way we fund things, then maybe we can talk about equity.”

Southern Nevada legislators say they want to play nice by shifting money to Clark County but also raise taxes to patch the losses the other 16 school districts would suffer. That plan, however, would require many rural legislators to make a reluctant vote for tax increases.

“It’s on the forefront (for) many Southern Nevada legislators to figure out how to hold other people harmless, but I think that brings up the revenue discussion,” said Assembly Speaker Marilyn Kirkpatrick, D-North Las Vegas.

A study from last summer concluded that Clark County schools lose in an inequitable and outdated system that rewards sparsely populated school districts.

At the Legislature this year, a crop of new leaders and new legislators from Clark County wants to fix the problem. One change in the 2012 study would mean an extra $321 per student for the Clark County School District.

“I think they’re interested in making sure Clark County is not at the short end of the stick,” said Joyce Haldeman, an associate superintendent at the Clark County School District.

Granted, all legislators like the concept of creating equity in an inequitable system, but complaints come fast and often when “equity” means dollars from all 16 other Nevada school districts flow into the Clark County School District under the study’s proposed changes.

The study said those districts would lose between $97 and $6,411 per student. Hence, the study noted, such potential changes leave other school districts “terrified.”

Northern Nevada legislators and school officials said Northern Nevada schools need to continue to get the same amount of money they currently receive and that Clark County needs more money for English language learners and students in poverty.

“We can’t be talking about English language learners, students in poverty with existing dollars,” said Bob Dolezal, White Pine County school district superintendent. “We can’t rob Peter to pay Paul. We have to look at additional dollars.”

But the state clearly lacks enough money in Sandoval’s budget to make every district happy.

Changing the formula to account for the higher costs of educating students living in poverty and English language learners, among other factors, would mean that the state would need to raise at least an additional $117 million in order to replace the money rural school districts would lose, according to the 2012 study.

So if the revenue pie doesn’t grow, Clark County legislators could find a way to steer their direction the $135 million in new education funding Sandoval has proposed or flip a few levers in the state’s education funding formula and send dollars cascading south from northern school districts.

“I don’t think anybody really wants to do that, but we hear from Clark County residents that we should do that,” Denis said. “They’ve been funding the rest of the state, and our kids are the ones that suffer because of that.”

It’s not an empty threat.

Fifteen of the state’s 21 senators and 33 of state’s 42 members of the Assembly represent districts wholly in Clark County.

Voting as a bloc, they’re strong enough to override a veto from Sandoval, who is from Reno. They could even lose six Clark County votes and still override Sandoval.

Sandoval also recognizes the need to account for students in poverty and English language learners but has said he won’t accept new taxes and has defended rural counties from losing money.

“We need to focus on at-risk schools, and that reality dictates that we acknowledge that reading levels, graduation rates and college readiness will not improve until we appropriately focus on ELL students,” said Mary-Sarah Kinner, spokeswoman for Sandoval. “Should the Legislature produce a plan to reform the Nevada Plan, the governor would review it.”

Republican legislators as well as Democrats in Clark County say the county should receive more education dollars.

“Yes, I think Clark County should get more money,” said Senate Minority Leader Michael Roberson, R-Henderson, who is spearheading a mining tax plan to get more money for education.

Clark County has over the years received fewer dollars per student than any other county in the state with some smaller, mineral-rich counties spending upwards of three times the amount per student that Clark County spends.

That’s largely by design: the 2012 study notes that the state crafted its formula for paying for public education in 1967 during “a time when the state had less population, was demographically homogeneous and was basically a rural state.”

The state accounts for local taxes and then adds money for counties that are sparsely populated and geographically remote, correctly noting that rural counties have higher transportation costs and cannot benefit from buying in bulk like larger counties can.

A metropolitan district with high poverty, a transient population and many English language learners wasn’t in the picture in 1967. Nobody accounted for the higher costs of educating these populations.

Today, Nevada is just one of three states — the others are Montana and South Dakota — that do not account for the higher costs of educating students in poverty or English language learners.

If the state began to account for free and reduced lunches, English language learners and other factors, money would get swept so fast that Northern Nevada districts wouldn’t have time to react, Northern Nevada legislators say.

“You've got to provide some certainty to all the districts,” said Assemblyman David Bobzien, D-Reno.

The 2012 study provided ways to move money around, but it didn’t recommend immediately changing the state’s underlying funding formula.

Nevada’s education system winds money through twists, tangles and turns in a complex system that requires time to unknot and tie back together.

“It’s not just an issue of saying there’s a percentage, and here’s how we’re going to do it,” Denis said.

The Department of Education, an agency under Sandoval, doesn’t recommend toying with the formula just yet. Give it another two years so staff and others can study the matter, state superintendent James Guthrie says.

“Our preferred posture is to take the time to study it carefully,” Guthrie said. “We cannot do that in the next two or three months while the Legislature is in session.”

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