School officials consider lawsuit to get education funded

Desperate for cash and squeezed for options, Clark County School District officials on Thursday considered a lawsuit against the state to make it adequately fund education, civil disobedience by refusing to file a balanced budget and the unplugging of personal refrigerators in the classroom.

School Board President Carolyn Edwards was frustrated that the school district would never be able to manage a funding shortfall next year of $250 million to $400 million, based on reductions in state support and declining revenue from local property and sales taxes.

Before more than 100 people at a budget workshop at Western High School, Edwards blasted state officials for “violating their own constitution” in failing to provide for education.

“I think we need to have a conversation about suing the state for not fulfilling its duties,” she said.

Gov. Brian Sandoval, who has vowed not to raise taxes, has proposed reducing state support to public education by 9 percent, or more than $200 million statewide, in the 2011-13 budget. He proposes 5 percent cuts in teacher salaries and a $270 reduction in per pupil support.

Ruben Murillo, the president of the teachers’ union, the Clark County Education Association, applauded Edwards and the School Board for their “guts and courage.”

He told the board not to worry about angering state legislators and the governor.

“What are they going to do? Not fund you?” Murillo quipped.

Because the school district is a part of government, district officials doubted whether the district has the legal standing to sue the state.

Edwards, however, said she would personally support another group such as a Parent Teacher Association or an employee union filing the lawsuit.

Murillo said his union has not even discussed legal action against the state. Because such a lawsuit would be so expensive, he said, it would “take a coalition of groups” to mount a case.

Educators said there has been much private discussion about a possible lawsuit. Bill Hoffman, the school district’s lawyer, said such lawsuits are not unusual, estimating they have occurred in 35 to 40 states across the country. He was unaware of any similar lawsuit being filed in Nevada.

Hoffman acknowledged that even if a court ruled in favor of increasing education funding, the state would still be left with the reality of having to find the money. Edwards said she is looking for a “long-term solution” to fund education in Nevada.

School officials were also disgruntled about a law requiring them to prepare a budget for next year by June 16. They aren’t expected to know their funding level until the Legislature adjourns, which is scheduled for June 6.

opting against submitting a budget

Because of the magnitude of the proposed cuts, School Board members wondered what would happen if they did not submit a budget with the state.

Jeff Weiler, the district’s financial officer, joked that he would be out of a job.

Hoffman advised board members that if they failed to submit a budget, the state Department of Taxation would then impose a budget on the school district.

The district has set a goal of a passing its final budget for 2011-12 on May 16.

The board will begin considering budget options at its March 24 meeting when Superintendent Dwight Jones said he would present a plan.

In accordance with community input, Jones said, he will protect athletics, music and the arts from program cuts.

He also said he will look for cuts within the district administration.

feedback from TOWN HALLS AND SURVEYS

One suggested budget cut that received administrators’ support came in an e-mail: Barring personal refrigerators from the classroom.

The small appliances, which are not purchased by the district but can be found in many schools, cost the district about $1 million a year to operate, officials said.

Much of the input from an online survey and town halls around the valley Tuesday was inconclusive. Participants failed to reach consensus on possible cuts.

The average online survey respondent was flummoxed in trying to solve the budget problem, recommending only $237 million in program cuts, well short of the minimum anticipated shortfall of $250 million.

Suggestions included cutting employee salaries by 2 percent, eliminating English language literacy specialists, increasing class sizes by two more students and reducing school bus transportation.

One area in which respondents were not flummoxed was taxes. Sixty-five percent of the survey’s 12,958 respondents said they favored increasing taxes to support education.

People at Tuesday’s town halls also supported finding new sources of revenue for education and wanted to keep increases in class sizes as small as possible.

Contact reporter James Haug at jhaug@reviewjournal.com or 702-374-7917.

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