Jim Clark: Budget shortfalls at the Washoe school district (opinion)
If you voted last November to increase Washoe County sales taxes to 8.265% — “to raise $781 million for repairs to existing schools and to build new schools” — you might be feeling a little hornswoggled.
Measure WC-1 was approved by Washoe County voters by about 55% to 45% ,but then you might have expected that. First of all, there was a million-dollar-plus slick advertising campaign to convince voters to “do it for the kids.”
After the election, contribution reports filed with the state showed big money behind the campaign came (not surprisingly) from those who stood to benefit most: general contractors, sub-contractors, residential developers, engineers, architects and teacher unions (more teachers bring in more union dues).
Regional media hopped on board, showing graphic footage of toilets that didn’t flush, peeling paint, etc.
The surprise was that 45% of Washoe voters opposed the measure. There was no organized opposition, and therefore no means to inform voters that the previous year, the Washoe County School District had pleaded with the Nevada Legislature for funds to cover their estimated $230 million in deferred maintenance, and that the Legislature responded with Senate Bills 119 and 207.
These extended Washoe taxpayers’ school debt tax to provide the district with $315 million, enough to pay for all identified repairs plus some. Yet, during the WC-1 election campaign, the district was anxious to invite regional TV stations in to document deterioration which they now had more than enough money to fix.
The WC-1 tax increase was to pay just for new schools, even though enrollment has been constant since 2004.
You might actually call that two hornswoggles.
The third hornswoggle did not become apparent until last weekend when the Reno Gazette-Journal ran a story about the school district plans to increase class sizes in order to try to balance their budget.
Readers may recall that owing to a series of disastrous financial impacts related to firing and hiring superintendents the school board’s fiscal competence was highly suspect.
Therefore, promoters of the slick WC-1 campaign emphasized that the $781 million was for buildings and could not be spent on salaries.
The Gazette-Journal story said the district is considering jamming more students into classes to try to cover a $30 million operating budget deficit. The piece noted that the district has faced similar shortfalls in the past and balanced budgets by “dipping into savings accounts that are now depleted.”
According to Deputy Superintendent Kristen McNeill: “per-pupil funds received from the state are not enough to cover costs. In Nevada, schools receive $5,774 per student, more for those with a disability, still learning English or from a low income home. It’s not enough to cover the district’s operating budget, 80 percent of which is allocated for teacher and staff salaries.”
The story added that increasing class sizes will save the district about $12 million. It would have to be approved by state lawmakers but still would not cover the budget shortfall. So the district is sitting there awash in cash to build schools they don’t need and they can’t even afford to staff the schools they already have.
Is the Washoe School District a never-ending money pit the legislature must continuously bail out?
Consider Nevada’s 46 charter schools. They also receive $5,774 per student plus zero, nada, nothing for facilities.
No part of that $781 million will go to charter schools, so they have to pay rent and maintenance out of Nevada’s per student allocation. Some are producing stunning academic results yet every charter school must accept students from the same mix as attend district Schools.
Memo to legislators: If you want to fix Nevada education, disestablish bureaucratic school districts and convert all their schools to charters.
Jim Clark is president of Republican Advocates. He has served on the Washoe and Nevada GOP Central Committees. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.