Las Vegas Sun

August 24, 2019

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Funding challenges, teacher shortages reach Clark County classrooms

Jones Blackhurst Elementary School Tour

Steve Marcus

Savannah Martinez, 8, shows a book to her sister Sierra, 5, during a tour of Jan Jones Blackhurst Elementary School in the northwest valley Tuesday, Aug. 1, 2017. The school is one of six new elementary schools preparing to welcome students on Aug. 14, the first day of school.

This past year, Angie Manzanares, a Leavitt Middle School science teacher, sold her break time between classes back to the Clark County School District so she could teach an additional class. Not only did this earn her $6,000 more a year, but it also made her class sizes smaller, which benefited her students. It was a win-win for everyone.

But selling her prep time isn’t an option for the 2018-19 school year because of budget shortfalls. In May, the district announced a $2.4 billion budget and a $68 million deficit, despite cutting $771 million since 2009 and receiving an additional $34.1 million for the coming year from the state in the last legislative session.

The weight of the deficit fell upon schools, which were required to shed $47 million from their individual budgets—Manzanares’ school cut about $250,000. Central service departments, which include the superintendent’s office and the finance department, cut another $15.5 million from their 2018-19 budget, leaving $5.5 million in cuts remaining. The school district did not respond to multiple inquiries asking where the rest would be cut.

The moves enabled the district to be compliant with state laws NRS 387.303 and NRS 354.598, and resulted in a loss of 563.5 positions from 260 schools—400 licensed positions, 104 support staff and 59.5 administrative positions. All administrators and hundreds of teachers have been reassigned; less than five teachers and 20 support staff were not provided a new role in the district, according to a press release.

In its Finance Friday Youtube videos explaining the deficit, CCSD states that the deficit stems from the April arbitration decision that expands on teacher benefits.

In those videos, Mauricio Marin, public information officer for CCSD, said benefits such as compensation step increases and a health care fund accounted for $51 million of the deficit; the arbitration decision regarding the placement of teachers on the salary schedule accounted for $3 million; and the implementation of a Professional Growth system accounts for the rest for the budget deficit.

The district cited increasing costs for eating up the $34.1 million in additional funding—special education staffing, police officers and supplies for school safety, staff for four new schools, transportation, maintenance, landscaping, support staff services and utilities expenses. The district appealed the arbitration decision, but made the cuts in case a judge rules against the appeal.

The district uses several different funding methods to fulfill its responsibilities. While the construction of new schools is funded through a capital improvement program, the general fund is used for a multitude of obligations, including teacher and staff salaries.

The budget crisis for the nation’s fifth-largest district comes at a time when 57 percent of its school buildings are 20 years or older and in need of structural repairs. In five years, that number will climb to 68 percent. CCSD’s financial need for capital improvements is $10.1 billion.

Nevada also has the nation’s largest class sizes, according to the 2018 National Education Association report.

“Nationally, Nevada is ranked highest at a class size of 25 [students], which is a joke because my smallest class size was 28,” Manzanares said. “My largest was 39. Right now at our school, we’re at roughly 37.5 students per teacher. You can’t [teach that many students]. I mean you can, but not in good conscience.”

Four new elementary schools are scheduled to open in 2018 and another two in 2019, according to the CCSD capital improvement plan website. That will help with some of the class-size issues. The district will have to fill new teaching and staffing positions at those schools, as well as other open teaching positions.

And “CCSD still has almost 800 open teaching positions, and we encourage teachers who are considering moving to Clark County or others interested in entering the teaching profession to join our team,” Chief Human Resources Officer Andre Long said in a press release.

But with the cuts, the openings and the absence of 1,468 teachers who chose to leave their jobs, class sizes continue to increase and teachers such as Manzanares remain concerned.

“I do catch a lot of my students going through crisis. I can’t tell you how many times this past year,” she said. “But we can only catch so much. ... If I’ve got 40 kids in front of me and one of the students is going through a crisis, I better see some really obvious warning signs or students better say ‘hey,’ because I can’t notice that. And that’s what we’re struggling with.”