Rulffes says governor sticking schools with bigger share of cuts

CARSON CITY — Clark County Schools Superintendent Walt Rulffes accused the governor Thursday of unfairly demanding Nevada public schools cut their spending by an additional $96 million when schools already will not receive $90 million appropriated by the Legislature.

Rulffes told the Legislature’s Committee on Education that Gov. Jim Gibbons really intends to reduce public school spending by 7 percent, more than $180 million, not the 4.5 percent cut requested from other state agencies. The meeting was a teleconference between Las Vegas and Carson City.

“It is like a sucker punch in the nose,” said Rulffes, noting that the governor until mid-December had not requested public schools to make any spending reductions.

Democratic members of the committee agreed with Rulffes’ views, with Assemblyman Mo Denis, D-Las Vegas, urging school boards to defy the governor and make no cuts.

Republican members largely were silent. Gibbons is a Republican.

Even with the cuts, spending on public schools this year is $221 more per student than last year, said Keith Rheault, state superintendent of public instruction.

In light of a new national report that gave Nevada’s education performance a D+ grade, 46th among the 50 states, Rulffes contended Gibbons should not reduce public education funding.

But state Budget Director Andrew Clinger, in a phone interview, challenged Rulffes’ reasoning.

He said the school districts never received or were entitled to the $90 million that Rulffes wants to credit as a cut on public education.

Because school enrollments did not reach the projections on which legislators based the $2.2 billion public school budget, schools never received that money, Clinger said.

Rulffes himself had told the committee that enrollment in Clark County increased by 6,000 pupils, not the 11,000 on which state spending was based

Therefore, the school district did not receive $66 million for students who never enrolled.

Nonetheless, Rulffes will request the Clark County School Board — and school administrators in other counties will ask their school boards — to pass resolutions demanding Gibbons credit them as having made $90 million in cuts because of the enrollment shortfall.

“We can handle the other $5 million to $10 million (in cuts),” Rulffes added.

But Clinger said the administration wants school boards to identify only where they would make slightly less than $40 million in spending reductions.

Gibbons has decided to postpone the start of the education empowerment program, expansion of the full-day kindergarten program, career and technical education improvements, and other new programs, the budget director said.

By this step, the state will save $55 million. He added that the administration also has reduced the cuts expected by public education by another $3 million.

“Finding less than $40 million out of a $2.2 billion budget is a small piece of that budget,” Clinger said.

Clark County School Board member Ruth Johnson took a different view at Thursday night’s board meeting.

Budget cuts mean that the district will not be doing things for students that it should be doing, she said, and cuts, whatever they might be, are going to have an impact.

“It doesn’t just fall into a black hole and we absorb it and keep going,” Johnson said.

Board members passed a resolution that will be sent to Gibbons addressing the proposed reductions in state funding to K-12 education. It encourages the state to do the following:

• Explore ways of stabilizing funding for education.

• Use the state’s rainy day fund to meet public education’s share of the budget shortfall.

• Base next year’s per pupil allocation increase on what this year’s figure was before any reductions were made.

• Establish an account where funding that reverts to the state from school districts is held in reserve to meet future shortfalls.

Board members also raised the possibility of a lawsuit against the state for failing to meet its constitutional and legal obligation to fund public schools adequately.

“In a year when there’s a shortfall, where’s the guarantee?” School Board President Mary Beth Scow said of the state’s obligation to support schools.

Gibbons wants school districts to prepare lists by today showing how they would reduce their spending. But some districts will not meet for several weeks, Rheault said earlier.

“If the governor wants overnight decisions, he needs to make some,” Rulffes said in an interview.

The governor intends soon to announce his plan to cut state spending by a total $440 million over the next 18 months because of a decline in tax revenue.

About $160 million of the reduction would come from dipping into the state’s rainy day fund when the Legislature goes into session in February 2009.

Rheault outlined how his office will save $1 million by not filling a parental involvement coordinator position, a gifted-and-talented student consultant and other positions.

“There are no good options,” said Rheault, who suggested schools might cut back on book purchases. “I don’t care what you cut. There will be an effect on student achievement.”

Democratic members of the committee were incensed by the cuts he suggested.

“Why is it we are talking about any of these cuts?” Denis asked.

He said school boards should show courage and defy the governor by not preparing cuts lists.

“To have a discourse on cuts is wrong,” added Denis, state PTA president. “We need to be brave and not cut.”

Committee Chairwoman Bonnie Parnell, D-Carson City, said the state dropout rate has declined because of career and technical education improvements that now are in jeopardy.

But Sen. Barbara Cegavske, R-Las Vegas, said the committee must look at restructuring Nevada education and make changes without increasing funding.

“We know what the solutions are, or at least a lot of them,” Denis replied. “A lot of it comes down to funding.”

Contact Review Journal Capital Bureau Chief Ed Vogel at evogel@reviewjournal.com or (775) 687-3901. Contact reporter Lisa Kim Bach at 383-0287 or lbach@reviewjournal.com

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