Rulffes spells out challenges as new school year nears

Superintendent Walt Rulffes asked for the public’s patience and cooperation as the beleaguered Clark County School District starts a new school year Monday facing many challenges: under-staffed schools, program cuts of $120 million, the swine flu pandemic and a higher threshold for showing progress under No Child Left Behind.

“It’s going to be a difficult year,” Rulffes said today at a news conference at McCaw Elementary School, 330 Tin St. near West Basic Road in Henderson.

The nation's fifth largest school district is expecting 313,688 students next week, a slight increase over last September’s official tally of 311,240. More than a third of the students — 140,000 — will be receiving free and reduced price lunches. The school district is opening three new elementary schools, one replacement elementary school and three high schools. Because of budget cuts and enrollment uncertainty, the district’s 353 schools are only staffing teachers at 97 percent of their projected need.

“We’ve been staffing very frugally,” Rulffes said. “As a result, many schools will have a vacancy or two. We’re going to hold those vacancies until we know what the enrollment is.”

As of Monday, the district had 170 teacher vacancies in the elementary schools, 89 vacancies in middle schools, 82 vacancies in high schools and 70 vacancies in specialized positions like school psychologists and speech pathologists, said Martha Tittle, the director of human resources.

It is still recruiting for hard-to-fill jobs like math, science and special education. “We are not holding openings in high-need areas,” Tittle said.

Through alternative licensure programs, or assistance for staff getting specialized degrees, the district has had success in filling many special education openings. It only has about 30 vacancies for special education classroom teachers for middle and high school this year, which Tittle called a “significant reduction.”

Because of the budget cuts and staff reductions, many high schools electives like drama and Chinese will not be offered this year. High school students can expect large class sizes, too.

School Board member Sheila Moulton knew of a high school history teacher with class lists of 37 to 39 students. On a positive note, she said the teacher will only have 16 students for an advanced placement class.

“I know (class sizes) makes such a big difference,” said Moulton, who has a son-in-law who teaches high school physical education classes with 55 to 60 students.

The district will be following state requirements in maintaining class sizes of 16 students to a teacher in the first and second grades and 19 students to a teacher in the third grades. Coincidentally, Rulffes said the school district’s best test scores are achieved in the first through fourth grades.

The School Board has been adamant about not increasing class sizes.

“I mean, they have had me by the ear a time or two,” Rulffes said in an interview.

The schools will be judged this year by target benchmarks under the federal No Child Left Behind Act that are increasing as much 10 percent, said Lauren Kohut-Rhost, the deputy superintendent for academics. The goal of the school accountability law is to have all students reading and performing math at grade level by the 2013-14 school year.

If there’s cause for optimism, it’s that the H1N1 virus, or the swine flu, remains a mild illness that’s not so different from the seasonal flu, according to health officials who spoke at Wednesday’s news conference. “Most people will be recover from it without seeking medical attention,” said Dr. Lawrence Sands, chief health officer of the Southern Nevada Health District.

As a general rule, Rulffes said schools won’t close this year if there’s a reported case of H1N1. School closures have not proven to be very effective at preventing the spread of the illness, Sands added.

Sands urged parents and students to take the normal precautions like frequent hand-washing and staying home from school if sick.

Health and school officials said they will be watching for an outbreak of H1N1 and are making contingency plans for mass inoculations if necessary.

Contact reporter James Haug at or 702-374-7917.