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School budget survey varied

Sports and the performing arts are in.

Administrative staff is out.

Otherwise, public input on how to close a $120 million gap in the 2009-10 Clark County School District budget was pretty inconclusive.

School Board member Ruth Johnson interpreted the public survey results on proposed budget cuts as individuals saying: "Do it to somebody else."

Some programs, like block scheduling, ranked highly as keepers on some surveys but fared poorly on others. Block scheduling allows high school students to take additional classes and provides extended class periods, but is not available in elementary schools. That’s probably why it did not do as well on some school-based surveys, officials said.

Motivated employees and supporters of librarians and school orchestras also made a strong showing at the November town hall meetings, judging by the favorable comments for those budget expenditures.

District officials on Wednesday released the results of surveys taken at schools, parent meetings and town halls. Some of the results were gathered by phone and on the Internet.

The surveys were given at the direction of the School Board, which wanted a broad spectrum of public input before Dec. 11, when it will be asked to approve a tentative budget for 2009-2010. School officials are planning for state funding reductions of 14 percent because of the worsening economic crisis.

Before approving the tentative budget, School Board members said they also will take guidance from next week’s special legislative session and look at a recommended budget prepared by Superintendent Walt Rulffes.

Rulffes said his proposal will be a mix of across-the-board cuts as well as more targeted, specialized cuts. Instead of eliminating some sports programs, for example, he may recommend shorter seasons. Each school will also be given latitude on how to cut their budgets by 3.5 percent.

The district is also recommending 12 percent, across-the-board cuts in administrative staffing and division budgets for next year.

While there seems to be a big public appetite for more cuts in administration, School Board President Mary Beth Scow said professionals are needed to run the business side of the school system, the fifth-largest in the nation.

Scow said the district would still have a budget deficit even if it cut every administrative position.

Members of the public urged the district to think more creatively about the budget.

Parent Kevinn Donovan estimated the district could save a "staggering" $54.6 million if it converted all elementary schools to a year-round calendar and rezoned all middle schools and high schools to take advantage of underutilized classrooms.

The district could then close 44 elementary schools, seven middle schools and three high schools, Donovan said. He based his calculations on enrollment figures and school capacity numbers.

Another option is to adopt a four-day school week to save money on transportation, utilities and staffing. That would require a change in state law, but legislators have told school officials they’re open to suggestions, said Joyce Haldeman, associate superintendent for government and community relations.

Rulffes said he is skeptical the four-day week would save much money. It might make sense for more rural areas, but he was not aware of any metropolitan school district in the country that has gone to a four-day school week.

One anonymous person who filled out the comment section of a survey suggested the district could eliminate diversity programs because the election of Barack Obama as president proves they no longer are needed.

Another anonymous writer advised educators to admit they need help and call up a "superb" school administrator in Illinois for advice. The writer even gave the phone number for Neil Codell, a superintendent in Skokie, Ill.

Reached by phone, Codell told the Review-Journal he would not "be so presumptuous" to advise the Clark County School District in a public forum like a newspaper, but agrees with local sentiment that sports and extracurricular activities are important.

"They’re the life of a school," Codell said.

Instead of looking for more cuts, comment-card writers said the state needs to fix its revenue problem. Some suggestions included having a "Jerry Lewis-style telethon for education" or having the school district take an "ownership stake in a casino."’

Wendy Maily, a parent who spoke at the School Board meeting Wednesday, said Nevada is unlike most states because it doesn’t have either an income tax or a lottery to fund education. She said it’s time for Nevadans to face reality and find a new source of revenue, such as creating a gas tax for education.

"It’s like we want to buy this mansion, but we’re working minimum-wage at a fast food restaurant," Maily said. "Are we going to work more hours? How about getting a better job?"

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

 

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