Jim Clark: Washoe County School District budget shortfall creates anger and frustration among locals
I took a leave of absence from the “On Politics” column for a trip to Hawaii. There are some interesting political and economic similarities between Nevada and Hawaii which I will address in a future column.
On my return, I was not surprised to see the April 8 Reno Gazette Journal headline: “Tensions flare at WCSD town hall” and its accompanying story on a meeting held at Wooster High School for the public to interact with the school superintendent about class size increases and teacher layoffs due to a budget deficit.
Incline/Crystal Bay parents were way ahead of the Reno/Sparks crowd on this. Locals were up in arms about the cuts most of the last month demanding that school officials explain how a $30 million school district operating budget deficit happened. In my March 9 “On Politics” column I quoted Deputy Superintendent Kristen McNeill saying: “per pupil funds received from the state are not enough to cover costs. In Nevada schools receive $5,774 per student… not enough to cover the district’s operating budget, 80 percent of which is allocated for teacher and staff salaries.”
The April RGJ story states that Superintendent Tracy Davis and Chief Financial Officer Tom Ciesynski fielded “questions for more than two hours about the district’s looming $40 million budget deficit… “What? The shortfall grew another $10 million in just a month?” one parent at the Wooster meeting told the Reno Gazette: “It is so frustrating that there was no mention of this during WC-1.” WC–1 was the local initiative approved by voters last November to increase Washoe’s sales tax rate to a state high 8.265% to fund $781 million for “repairs to existing schools and to build new schools.”
Aha! That parent got the drift of my March 9 column about hornswoggling voters. I pointed out that the million+ dollar “Yes on WC–1” campaign was funded by contractors, residential developers, engineers, architects and teacher unions… those who stood to gain the most from school construction spending. I also pointed out that the 2015 Nevada Legislature extended Washoe taxpayers’ “school debt” tax to provide WCSD $315 million to pay for its claimed “$239 million in unfunded school renovation and repair needs” (thus the WC–1 sales tax increase would pay only for new and expanded school facilities even though enrollment has been a constant 65,000 +/- students since 2004); I noted that due to the school board’s history of fiscal incompetence the “Yes on WC–1” campaign made a big issue that none of the proceeds could be spent on salaries; I quoted McNeill as saying that the WCSD operating budget had historically operated at a deficit and was balanced in the past by “dipping into savings accounts that are now depleted”.
The net result of all of this is that voters were triple hornswoggled (a) into voting a tax increase to build new schools for (b) a static student population for which (c) there is not enough money to pay teachers. Hence the tension between WCSD and parents.
My March 9 column concludes by noting that Nevada has 46 charter schools, public schools which serve the same student populations as WCSD and which receive the same $5,774 per student state funding as WCSD. They get nothing extra for building, grounds and maintenance which, unlike WCSD, must be paid for out of that basic funding. Charters have volunteer governing boards and generally only one or two administrators. No charter school runs at a budget deficit. So why can’t WCSD balance its books without increasing class sizes and axing teachers?
Or, is this a big smoke screen to get the in-session legislature to increase WCSD funding?
Jim Clark is president of Republican Advocates. He has served on the Washoe County and Nevada GOP Central Committees. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.