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Anger over cuts reaches fever pitch

Passions rose to scream-therapy intensity at a public meeting Wednesday on possible Clark County School District budget cuts that could total $120 million next school year.

Outdrawing a Tuesday crowd of 600 people at Western High School, about 750 people came to Chaparral High School on Wednesday for the second of two meetings to give school officials input on how to manage a financial crisis brought on by a shortfall in state tax revenues.

Many suggestions incited the different groups assembled in the school’s gym, near Flamingo Road and U.S. Highway 95. Speakers who suggested four-day school weeks and reduced bus transportation provoked angry responses from some of the parents and bus drivers sitting in the bleachers.

Clark County School Board President Mary Beth Scow pleaded with the audience to end the catcalls and forcefully talked over fifth-grade teacher Courtney Curtin, who exceeded her two minutes at the microphone.

Speakers also directed their anger at targets outside the district. Some blamed Gov. Jim Gibbons, who has said that the state needs to cut another $300 million in spending in the fiscal year that ends June 30 and reduce spending by another $1.5 billion for the two-year budget that starts July 1. Others called for a Nevada economy that offered young people opportunities beyond becoming “bartenders, parking valets and strippers.”

April Medlin, a mother of a student and the sister of a tank commander serving in Iraq, held up a picket sign that said, “Stop War Funding Now.” A co-founder of a local chapter of Military Families Speak Out, Medlin drew a connection between increases in military spending and cuts in school funding.

“As long as this war goes on, this (lack of school funding) is only going to get worse,” she said. “The only thing we need to cut is the war budget.”

Others asked School Board members and district staff to rethink whole programs and approaches to education. Standardized testing and the federal No Child Left Behind Act that mandated more of it was roundly lambasted as ineffectual and a waste of time and money.

“No Child Left Behind is a damn joke,” parent Lori Mele said.

Associate Superintendent for Community Relations Joyce Haldeman acknowledged that some of the suggestions were “over the top” and out of the district’s control.

“No Child Left Behind is a federal program,” Haldeman said.

While she didn’t agree with all the comments, Haldeman said she appreciated parents’ concern for their children’s education and hoped their energy could be “channeled” for positive change.

School officials also praised the public’s willingness to make donations and organize fundraisers for the district.

Superintendent Walt Rulffes said the public was beginning to grasp the seriousness of the situation, which could mean massive layoffs and the loss of prized programs such as arts, music and sports.

“They’re putting a face on these numbers,” he said.

District Chief Financial Officer Jeff Weiler also pointed out that the district could face an additional $30 million in cuts this school year, the impact of which is “shuddering to imagine,” he said.

The anticipated cuts will only compound the impact of earlier budget reductions. The district has had to reduce its budget by $130 million.

Rulffes said he has “never forgiven” himself for agreeing to increase class sizes five years ago because cuts are never 100 percent restored.

In one sign of public interest in possible education budget cuts, online readers of the Las Vegas Review-Journal posted more than 130 comments about Tuesday’s meeting at Western High School. Speakers at Chaparral echoed the concerns posted on the newspaper Web site, namely that the district needs to cut out “the fat” and reduce from “the top down and not the bottom up,” preserving classroom funding as much possible and cutting district bureaucracy.

Weiler said the district is looking at across-the-board cuts of 12 percent in administrative staff next year, eliminating as many as 280 positions.

In contrast to the calls for cuts in “fat,” Michele Sorom, a third-grade teacher at Martin Luther King Elementary, worries about her school having enough “paper and pencils to make it to January.”

She said everyone has a stake in educating the young: “If we don’t do a good job with them, we’re going to be in trouble when we’re old and gray.”

Contact reporter James Haug at jhaug@ reviewjournal.com or 702-799-2922.

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