Monday, Sept. 11, 2017 | 2 a.m.
At the start of the school year, Elizondo Elementary School Principal Keith France didn’t have the budget to buy basic classroom supplies for his teachers.
“I had to send home a list for parents to help us purchase items for teachers in the classroom,” France said. “Saying, ‘Buy supplies for our classrooms’ — I don’t ever do that. But we didn’t have a choice this year.”
Unfortunately for Elizondo, and for all of more than 300 institutions within the Clark County School District, the situation is about to get a lot worse.
CCSD recently revealed a massive budget shortfall. The central administrative office hasn’t released a grand total yet, but the most recent estimate was in the ballpark of $60 million. Superintendent Pat Skorkowsky (who announced on Sept. 7 that he will retire in June) sent a memo to district employees on Sept. 6 saying that CCSD does not plan on laying off teachers and hopes to “minimize (reductions in force) of support staff and administrators.”
The Board of Trustees during its August meeting approved a $43 million budget cut to help address the deficit, though that approval came with no estimate of how many pink-slipped employees that actually equals. At the time, individual schools were expected to absorb approximately 72 percent of the cuts, while the central office would absorb the remaining.
That fact, as well as confusion over how the district wound up with such a massive deficit in the first place, has led to contention and a public blame game among central office administrators, state officials, elected officials and union representatives.
CCSD blames the deficit on an approximately $20 million loss in arbitration against the principals and administrators union and less-than-projected revenue coming in from the state, specifically in regard to full-day kindergarten, special education expenses and the per-student funding formula.
Nevada’s top educational official, State Superintendent Steve Canavero, says the finger-pointing upward is unjustified. He believes the district assumed it would receive money it was never promised from reimbursement funding sources designed for very specific purposes not related to primary budgets.
Meanwhile, the Clark County Education Association is demanding a financial audit of the district, and the Clark County Association of School Administrators and Professional-Technical Employees (the principals and administrators union) sent a scathing four-page letter to the Board of Trustees criticizing Skorkowsky’s handling of the budget.
Over at Elizondo, France doesn’t have time for blame.
He knows as much about the budget shortfall as the general public does right now. France and other principals have to wait until specific numbers for schools are finalized. Then, tough decisions have to be made, but unlike during previous budget shortfalls, those decisions won’t just be made by school administrators — at least in theory.
As part of an ongoing state-mandated reorganization of the district, School Organizational Teams comprising teachers, support staff and parents were created for each school to advise principals on site-based decisions. While any layoffs decisions might be restricted by collective bargaining agreements with the unions, some of the decisions on programming and necessary positions could be determined by SOTs.
It could prove to be a weighty test of the relatively new concept within the district.
Kaylea Huskey, a special education teacher at May Elementary School, says she feels supported by her school administration and SOT, but that the true damage has already been done at the district level. Part of the $43 million slash approved by the Board of Trustees in August included a $1.6 million reduction in special education support staff. That could mean losing facilitators and aides.
Huskey says some special education teachers have two teaching aides because their students have severe behavior issues and require more one-on-one time. She is worried that district officials are looking only at pure numbers and not the circumstances of students.
“Losing those second aides would mean tougher days,” she says. “They play vital roles in educating.”
Huskey, now in her third year of teaching, also is concerned about how these cuts and the increased stress they bring to school staff will impact morale and retention for newer teachers like herself.
“I have been losing faith in the district as a whole,” she says, citing pay freezes and changing pay scales as other obstacles teachers have had to endure. “One (special education teacher) told me, ‘Does this mean I’m not going to get an aide? Because I really can’t do this by myself.’ ”
Huskey adds, “I have a good group this year. I’ll be OK, I think.”
France is among those trying to stay optimistic.
“No matter what happens with the district and the state and the money that’s coming down, I have already talked to my staff and we’ve made a commitment to do our best to move these kids — to make them ready for the next grade, for middle school, for life. Our personal views are left outside the door. We are here for one thing: That’s the kids.”
That said, the difficulty of figuring out just how to do that is daunting.
“There is no fat left to trim,” France said. “We are past that. We have had to trim a lot (in the past). Resources we were once able to have, like different computer programs for the kids to help them learn, all those things were already cut. We are bare bones.”
France knows layoffs and increased class sizes are inevitable at Elizondo because enrollment is down after a nearby charter school opened — meaning funding will be too, after the district’s count day — and while he is always worried about the morale of overworked teachers, he is most worried about the students and the timing of these cuts.
“We are not going to be able to do (these cuts) until October,” he said. “You will have kids who have bonded with each other and with teachers for two full months. They are going to get broken up and divided into classrooms where everyone has already bonded. They will be the odd kids out. It will be really hard for them to become part of that group because they came later.”
France adds that he rarely approves requests for the mid-year transfer of a student because the downsides of being tossed into a new learning environment outweigh the potential good. Now, that seems inevitable.“It’s going to be a terrible year,” he says.