School board scrutinizes new schools as finances continue to tighten

Six new public schools are supposed to open in the fall, but Clark County School Board member Sheila Moulton wonders if it might be better “to mothball” some of them because of the dire financial circumstances.

Clark County School District Chief Financial Officer Jeff Weiler suggested a wait-and-see approach, since it’s not yet known how much state funding and federal stimulus assistance the district will receive.

The lack of definitive answers about future school financing frustrated some School Board members, who on Tuesday approved a tentative $2.1 billion budget for 2009-10.

School Board member Carolyn Edwards was like the anxious wide receiver in the “Jerry Maguire” movie who demanded, “Show me the money!”

“Is the (federal stimulus) money here or isn’t it?” Edwards said in exasperation.

While the state is in line for about $324 million in federal stimulus assistance to stabilize the education funding, district officials are unclear on the money’s status because it requires matching state funds and a possible waiver.

Legislators are still working on a state budget. By law, the School Board has 30 days after the session adjourns to amend the district’s budget for the next fiscal year, which starts July 1. But district officials aren’t optimistic about getting much in the way of state funding.

“The ugly truth is that things are not getting better,” Superintendent Walt Rulffes said. ”They’re getting worse.”

The district expects to receive $74 million less in state funding for 2009-10 than it received in 2008-09. The district also plans $120 million in cuts to existing programs because of increased costs in areas such as employee contracts and benefits. District officials are also preparing for a $19.9 million shortfall in anticipated property tax revenue.

In putting together the tentative budget, district officials assumed a per-pupil allocation from the state of $4,800, which is $259 less than the $5,059 state allocation per student this year.

The district expects growth next school year of less than 1 percent, or an additional 2,448 students, that would bring total enrollment to 313,688.

Weiler said Clark County, which is the nation’s fifth-largest public school system, is the worst-funded metropolitan district in the United States. He noted that New York state spends about $14,000 per student.

The School Board also gave Rulffes the authority to seek a waiver from the state to increase primary-grade class sizes. Current staffing is 16 students per teacher in first and second grade, and 19 students per teacher in third grade.

As an alternative to increasing class sizes, Rulffes said he could try to renegotiate employee benefit packages. The district might also be forced to cut jobs.

The tentative budget calls for eliminating 684 full-time positions, the equivalent of 854 jobs since many positions are part-time.

Of those 854 jobs, 53 were administrative, 209 were teachers and licensed personnel and 592 were support staff. It’s unclear how many cuts will require layoffs because that will depend on factors such as employee retirements and resignations.

The district may also choose to keep vacancies unfilled. By keeping positions open and instituting other cost-cutting measures, the district managed to save $47 million for next year. While the School Board originally budgeted $2.72 billion this fiscal year, it now anticipates spending $2.07 billion by July 1. The board amended the $2.72 billion budget to $2.2 billion in December because of revenue shortfalls.

School officials also plan to free up an additional $22 million in 2009-10 by setting aside less in savings. The district usually earmarks 2 percent of its fund balance for the next year, but has decided to set aside 1 percent in 2009-10.

Weiler worries that the lack of savings could hurt the district’s credit rating.

Rulffes worries that the district won’t have much of a financial cushion going into 2010-11. He told board members: “The real horror starts in 2011 because you have no fund balance to protect you.”

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

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