On Politics: Try a little honesty, transparency
If it seems like I’m picking on the Washoe County School District it’s because their screwups are so public, frequent and from a political perspective — irresistible. Here are two prime examples from April alone.
Incline/Crystal Bay’s representative on the school board is Katy Simon Holland. Earlier this month, the Reno Gazette Journal published her column headlined: “Washoe County schools need additional funding”. It could have been a chapter in Darrel Hoff’s book “How to Lie With Statistics”. Holland contends that WCSD’s projected $40 million operating deficit is a “structural budget deficit,” which the district “has faced annually since 2008.”
She stated that WCSD “receives about $5,700 per pupil in funding from the state, yet it costs us about $7,200 per pupil to educate them.” She compares the $5,700 with a “national average” of $11,841 public school per student funding. Stop right there. When the U.S. Census, the U.S. Department of Education, and the many professional education publications cite per student funding they include state funds plus federal funds earmarked for special education, free meals for poverty students, etc. What’s the true figure?
The August 2016 issue of the publication Governing reports that the latest Census figures show the national average per pupil spending figure is $11,009; Nevada spends $9,210. But that’s not the whole story. Education Week magazine has crunched the Census numbers in its Quality Counts 2016, and reports them by school district. Washoe receives $8,778 per student, so WCSD actually has a “structural budget surplus” of over $100 million a year ($8,778 less $7,200 = $1,578 X 65,000 students = $102+ million). Unless, of course, they spent it on lawsuits, administrators’ salaries, prerogatives, benefits, and so forth.
Education Week reports other Nevada school district per student spending as: Clark County $7,745, Eureka County $31,115 and Esmeralda County $33,843. In neighboring California, the Death Valley Unified School District spends $70,110 per pupil.
Governing explores the cause of variances in per pupil funding figures. Teacher salaries and benefits are the most significant factor. The highest state, New York, has high housing costs and high state income taxes. Nevada has relatively moderate housing costs and no income tax. In any case, it is clear that comparative per pupil funding figures vary widely for a number of reasons and are not a reliable means of comparing school district efficiencies.
The second WCSD kerfuffle of this month appeared on April 22, also in the Reno Gazette Journal. In 2015, Gov. Brian Sandoval signed a “Read by Grade Three” law requiring Nevada school districts to make reading comprehension a priority. His budget included $30 million to fund the program, and he has budgeted $44.5 million for it in the next biennium. But WCSD claims the program is an “unfunded mandate” contributing to its projected $40 million deficit. Sandoval said, “That’s simply not true.” Nevada’s Department of Education went a step further saying, “It is a funded mandate” and, by the way, reading should be a priority for the district even without the law.
The Gazette Journal further reported that Deputy Superintendent Kristen McNeill acknowledged that WCSD did receive over $4.2 million for the Read by Grade Three program, but it wasn’t enough to pay for “learning strategists,” which she defined as “people designated at each school to be in charge of training for teachers on the best reading strategies.” Huh? WCSD wants to pay “reading strategists” to teach credentialed teachers how to teach reading? Incredible!
Holland is the former Washoe County manager where she earned an enviable reputation as a fiscally responsible steward of taxpayer dollars. But WCSD has lost the hearts and minds of Washoe voters. If the school board and administrators want to win us back they should not spout double talk, elastic budgets and phony needs.
Try a little honesty and transparency.
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.