Las Vegas Sun

September 20, 2019

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Community has the opportunity to learn and grow from painful cuts

The pain of the Clark County School District’s elimination of its dean positions is stinging in our community, and may continue to do so for some time.

But within this distressing situation lies a chance for us to not only heal but grow much, much stronger. The cuts highlight an opportunity for Southern Nevada to meet a critical need for more communication, coordination and comprehensive planning between our schools, local governments, colleges and other key institutions valleywide.

By coming together to discuss our community’s challenges and goals as a group, local leaders could help head off the kind of unpleasant surprises we experienced last week and could make meaningful progress on tackling issues that affect our quality of life across all jurisdictions in the valley — such as education, affordable housing, homelessness and public safety.

Part of what made the CCSD cuts so difficult to bear was that there apparently was no contingency plan for the community to step in and help eliminate the district’s budget deficit, even though the Nevada Legislature had been working for months toward passage of a bill allowing counties to raise sales taxes to provide funding for education.

So instead of being prepared to approve a tax increase, Clark County commissioners are at the first stage of the process. And considering that funding from a sales tax increase wouldn’t start being generated until the spring of 2020, time is of the essence.

But there’s a way forward to not only address CCSD’s short-term needs but help the community meet its broader potential.

Last week, the Sun proposed a one-quarter of one cent sales tax increase that would be gradually phased in over three years, starting with a tenth of a cent increase in 2019 followed by another one-tenth increase in 2020 and then the remainder in 2021.

In the first year, the revenue would go toward helping CCSD and bringing in outside experts to begin conducting research on affordable housing and homelessness. At the same time, Clark County commissioners would search for a mechanism to allow them to direct funding to CCSD before the school year — saving the dean positions — and recoup those funds when the tax revenue starts rolling in during the spring of 2020.

Let’s stress this: For one-tenth of one penny, our community can ride to the rescue of our schools and also get a jump on addressing other key needs.

The second and third years’ revenue would go toward completion and implementation of a multijurisdictional strategic plan.

The need for this kind of universal approach is growing ever more urgent.

Years of underfunding and the pressure of serving a growing population have left CCSD playing catch-up. The disturbing results include enormous class sizes, a $6 billion deferred maintenance backlog, high teacher turnover at some schools and, in general, an unsatisfactory learning environment for far too many students.

The district is making progress, but last week’s developments at CCSD showed dramatically that there’s still a lot of ground to make up.

That’s not Superintendent Jesus Jara’s fault. Far from it. He’s crafted a five-year strategic plan based largely on an analysis that starkly pointed out the district’s operational shortcomings, and his efforts in the Legislature this year helped lead to more state funding for K-12 schools.

On the deans, he faced options that were bad and worse: Either cut the positions or take such actions as increasing class sizes (in a district where classes are already far too full), dialing back transportation services, eliminating performing arts and so on.

As Jara noted, nobody wanted to eliminate the dean positions, whose primary responsibilities include handling discipline. But the Legislature’s approval of funding for school security helped give the district some flexibility in its approach to discipline by allowing CCSD to add more school counselors and take a more preventive stance. Jara reasoned that with the new approach in place, students would be less affected by the elimination of the deans than the other cost-cutting options.

Jara has apologized for announcing the cuts without warning, but his reasoning was sound.

Unfortunately, though, the loss of the deans will still have significant ramifications for school safety and the classroom environment.

With the Legislature having given communities more ability to solve problems in their backyards, we need to come to the district’s aid by restoring the funding and boosting CCSD’s ability to maintain discipline.

Meanwhile, rising home prices and rents in recent years have left our community’s service industry workers and other working-class residents facing a looming crisis in housing affordability. It’s essential that we address their needs — they’re the backbone of our economy, so we all have a stake in making the community a more livable place for them.

For our schoolchildren and working class both, problem-solving in siloes won’t work. Let’s turn our painful experience from last week into a positive by taking a unified approach to our planning.