Tough choices on local campuses

Economic hardships have forced individuals, households and businesses of all types and sizes to make excruciating cost-cutting decisions. There's no escaping the reality that with jobs vanishing, less money to go around and poor prospects for a 2009 turnaround, spending must be reduced.

The Clark County School District has not yet had to make the really tough calls unfolding across the valley -- closing doors, shedding payroll, abandoning homes, pawning personal property -- but it might have to by summer. So educators and officials are well into the process of preparing for worst-case budget scenarios.

On Tuesday, the Clark County School Board approved $120 million in reductions to next year's tentative $2.1 billion budget, which is $74.1 million smaller than the district's current spending plan. Trustees then learned that they'll have to trim an additional $20 million from that figure because of projected decreases in property tax revenue.

Some of the proposed reductions are broad: the elimination of block scheduling and the mandate to staff schools at 97 percent of what projected enrollments would normally require.

Others are more specific. Durango High School Principal Mark Gums, for example, elected to scrap theater classes and turn the school's drama program into an after-school club. The decision allowed him to preserve the school's band and choir.

Mr. Gums' decision could bring unpopular consequences for many of his students. Other painful lessons are being planned at campuses across the valley in the form of elective course cancellations.

The school district has entrusted principals with a lot of authority in determining how many of these potential cuts will be realized. They should be granted as much autonomy as possible in rooting out inefficiencies and weighing costs against benefits for students and overall achievement.

These are the school district's front-line leaders. And they're already miles ahead of the Legislature in identifying exactly what they'll cut -- exactly what students and their parents can expect to do without -- if the state's revenue forecasts remain unchanged.

This is precisely what lawmakers should be doing right now in Carson City. But instead of specifying what will be cut from public safety budgets, from welfare programs, from regulatory authorities and commissions, the Legislature is dawdling over policy matters of much less importance.

The Clark County School District is asking the right questions of the public and providing the kinds of answers that will go a long way toward resolving the state's budget challenges. The public can't provide support for priorities or rally against particular cuts if they don't know what's on the table.

It's important to note that none of these cuts has been imposed on schools yet. At some point over the next month, the Legislature's Democratic Party majority will propose large tax increases to restore most, if not all of those reductions. Federal stimulus funding could ensure Nevada school budgets continue their robust growth.

The school district will hold a public budget hearing on May 20, just before a final budget for 2009-10 must be approved and days before lawmakers' deadline to pass tax increases and guarantee themselves an opportunity to override Gov. Jim Gibbons' promised veto. There's no doubt that hearing will be a dramatic affair.

We've seen this dance before, back in 2003, when the curtain call brought record tax increases. The threat of education spending cuts -- or even reductions in the rate of education spending growth -- is lawmakers' political weapon of choice.

The big differences between then and now, of course, are the number of parents and businesses facing harder times than the education system itself, and the fact that the school district's skyrocketing enrollment finally has flattened out.

The school district is getting down to the nitty gritty. The Legislature should follow suit.