Enrollment drop forces school cuts

Durango High School Principal Mark Gums once thought “the worst was over.”

But because enrollment has fallen short of expectations, Durango and many other Clark County public schools now face additional program cuts and staff reductions.

In addition to the 13 teaching positions and the theater program that Gums has already sacrificed this school year, he will now have to eliminate five more teaching positions, a counselor and a part-time staff position.

He also is reducing the number of elective classes offered in art, woodworking and choral music.

Faced with the need to preserve core classes such as math, English and science, many principals are forced to cut the arts and other electives, said Clark County School District officials.

Durango, at 7100 W. Dewey Drive near Rainbow Boulevard and Russell Road, is 197 students short of projections. Marginal growth had been expected, but enrollment at Durango, which served 2,714 students last year, has dropped to about 2,600.

Officials had planned for districtwide growth of 0.7 percent, but enrollment is down by 1.31 percent. The district originally anticipated 313,688 students but had only enrolled 309,573 as of Friday, the official enrollment day. Last year, the district had 311,240 students.

“As a result of reduced enrollment and fewer teachers, . . . counselors will be meeting with students from eliminated classes to rearrange their class schedules,” Gums said in a letter to parents.

It was not immediately clear Monday how many Durango classes would be cut. Superintendent Walt Rulffes said families of district students should not be too worried about the loss in programs.

“I’m proud that we’re able to maintain many services that don’t exist in other school districts throughout the country,” Rulffes said Monday at a press conference. “We have librarians, P.E. (physical education) aides, computer specialists, counselors. We have arts and music. We only have minimal impact on sports. I believe, for the funding, the public is getting a good bang for its buck.”

The district’s general fund budget is now $2.19 billion, which is $11 million less than in 2008-09, said Jeff Weiler, the district’s chief financial officer.

Because of a “hold harmless provision” in state law, the district is protected from immediately losing state funding because of declining enrollment.

The district will receive state funding based on last year’s enrollment, which is $12.4 million less than the amount it anticipated. That shortfall should be made up by savings of $47 million from last year, Weiler said.

District officials believe enrollment projections were thrown off by the economic downturn and high unemployment. The schools with the steepest enrollment declines appear to be in the east Las Vegas Valley, although many of those schools still exceed their capacities. They just have fewer students than last year.

District officials believe they might have lost students whose families worked in construction.

“We’ve seen a tremendous loss in construction jobs,” Rulffes said. “I guess one could correlate it, but it would be a guess on our part.”

Public schools in Clark County are adjusting staffing levels this week based on their actual enrollments.

“We go through a process of teachers moving from one school to another,” said Martha Tittle, the district’s chief human resources officer.

Officials for the district and the Clark County Education Association, which represents district teachers, are confident that there won’t be layoffs. Excess staff from schools with declining enrollment will be reassigned elsewhere in the district. Schools were only staffed at 97 percent of their anticipated need in the event of a budget shortfall.

“We were staffed much more conservatively due to the budget cuts,” Tittle said.

But Brooke Mittledorf, an art teacher who has lost her position at Durango, is nervous. “Who’s going to want an art teacher?” she asked.

Jamie Todorovitch is a 15-year-old sophomore at the Las Vegas Academy, 315 S. Seventh St., near Charleston and Las Vegas boulevards. The school is supposed to be “about the performing arts,” she said.

But even her school has made cuts, including the elimination of a hand bell class. “We’re not happy about it,” Todorovitch said.

The class might seem “silly” or inconsequential, but she said the class taught her how to read music.

Principals will try to minimize program cuts by increasing class sizes or starting extracurricular clubs to replace electives such as theater, district spokesman Michael Rodriguez said.

Some schools are somewhat insulated from cuts by federal stimulus dollars for education. Schools were eligible for extra funding if they serve large populations of low-income and special education students.

Rancho High School got the most federal stimulus dollars in the state at $771,156, said Principal James Kuzma.

He used the money to hire additional staff and reduce class sizes from student/teacher ratios of about 40-to-1 to 30-to-1.

Rancho, 1900 Searles Ave. near Eastern Avenue in North Las Vegas, was one of four high schools with enrollment increases. Rancho had 294 more students than expected. Other high schools with increasing enrollments were Legacy, Las Vegas and Green Valley in Henderson.

Because Rancho could use extra federal dollars to hire more English, science and math teachers, Kuzma had the budget flexibility to save a choir teacher position that otherwise would have been eliminated.

“It’s my philosophy that you have to have the fine arts in high school,” Kuzma said. The choir teacher, “like any teacher who teaches an elective, gets students interested and motivated.”

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

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