Layoffs loom as School District feels budget squeeze

The hammer was handed to Superintendent Dwight Jones on Wednesday to chisel away between 200 to 1,350 Clark County School District positions when the time soon comes.

"We've squeezed about as much as we can," said Chief Financial Officer Jeff Weiler, referring to three consecutive years of district cuts to programs and equipment, noting that -- in the end -- salaries and benefits constitute 89 percent of all district expenses.

That is why the latest round of cuts will rely on layoffs.

Jones made the same point in an email sent to all 37,000 employees before Wednesday's meeting, where the School Board unanimously adopted a tentative $2.05 billion budget based on expected cost increases and diminished revenue. Board members also gave Jones the go ahead to make any "necessary reductions in force."

"Unfortunately, we must plan for more cuts, including a potential reduction in force," Jones wrote in the email. "The facts are indisputable for all to see."

But Jones won't act on layoffs until he hears from one man, an arbitrator, in late April. The arbitrator will decide whether 18,000 teachers will take a pay freeze this year and in 2012-13, which would save the district $63.9 million, according to the latest estimates. The Clark County Education Association, which represents teachers, has refused a salary freeze despite administrators, police and support staff acceding to the district's request.

If the arbitrator finds for the union and orders the district to give teachers pay raises for seniority and continued education, about 1,000 teachers would need to be laid off to make up that $63.9 million, and class sizes would grow, Weiler said.

The 350 other positions are on the chopping block regardless of the arbitration's outcome. About 300 of those positions were funded in 2010-12 using $55 million in federal stimulus money, called Education Jobs Funds, which runs dry in June. The positions affected are mostly specialized teachers, such as those teaching English language learners and literacy coaches.

The 50 other positions at risk are engineers and workers involved in construction. The district continues to cut back on those types of jobs after hitting an enrollment slump after a period of unprecedented growth last decade. The district exploded from 200,000 students in 1999 to 311,000 in 2009. Next school year, the district expects to have 307,574 students, or 800 fewer students than this year.

With no new voter-approved bond replacing the 1998 Capital Improvement Plan, which generated $4.9 billion to build 112 schools through 2010, the district doesn't need the staff it has to support construction projects. In 2007, the district had 400 workers for constructing and remodeling schools but has gradually reduced that to 50 in 2012-13.

Despite the slump, the district needs $5.3 billion in school construction bonds to repair and modernize its aging schools over the next decade. School Board members believe that voters are unlikely to support increased property taxes to fund that. But four former Nevada first ladies -- Sandy Miller, Bonnie Bryan, Dawn Gibbons and Dema Guinn -- filed paperwork Tuesday to form a PAC, School Improvement Committee, to support any proposed school bond program.

As for next school year, the district's tentative budget calls for a 1.7 percent, or $35.7 million, decrease from this year largely because of diminishing property taxes. On top of that, it expects to need $4 million more next year for transportation as fuel prices rise and $4 million more for water due to a rate increase.

However, district officials stressed that the budget and layoff numbers are "very tentative," especially because of arbitration with the teachers union.

"These are tough decisions," board member Chris Garvey said. "I have no clear answers right now."

Jones said many of those answers will be apparent when the budget's adopted in its final form May 16.

Contact reporter Trevon Milliard at tmilliard@review or 702-383-0279.