Free money? We’ll think about it

On Dec. 12, the Clark County School Board voted to move forward with budget adjustments that “will hurt kids,” one member of the panel lamented.

The funding changes mean the district will have about $120 million less than expected for the 2009-10 school year unless lawmakers come up with more money next session.

The list of reductions covers myriad areas:

— The central administrative staff will get $34.5 million less.

— The district fund balance will be cut in half by $22 million.

— Rescinding some early retirement incentives will save $2.5 million.

— Support staff funding in elementary schools will be $2 million less than expected.

— Teacher purchasing cards and teacher mentor programs will have $6.7 million less.

— The anticipated athletics budget will be cut by $1.7 million.

In today’s economy, with state tax collections lagging well behind projections, the district had little choice but to recognize reality. The hand-wringing, however, has been extraordinary as district officials warn apocalyptically that the spending changes will have dire consequences for the future of the region.

Why, then, did the district fumble the ball when a local philanthropist offered to donate $2 million toward K-12 education in Southern Nevada?

Jeffrey Moskow, a 61-year-old retired executive, was looking to donate $2 million to the district to enhance local gifted education programs. He says district officials dithered on the offer and “said they would get back to me but never did.”

So he instead gave $1 million to Temple Beth Sholom in Summerlin and another $1 million to UNLV.

“It took the administrators (at UNLV) one meeting to welcome the donation,” said a frustrated Mr. Moskow, adding that the temple and university stayed in “daily contact” with him after learning of his potential generosity.

District officials have a different story to tell — but the fact that the story varies wildly speaks volumes.

Superintendent Walt Rulffes said the district was cooperating with Mr. Moskow. “Something is awry here,” he said.

But Judi Steele, president of the Public Education Foundation, which raises private funding for local schools, said district officials did not get her information on Mr. Moskow’s plan until it was too late. And a district spokesman who spoke about the gift with Jeff Weller, the district’s chief financial officer, said the executive claimed Mr. Moskow put too many conditions on the money.

Even Mr. Rulffes said he understood that Mr. Moskow’s donation would be “dedicated money” that would require additional district spending.

So which is it? Was the district cooperating with Mr. Moskow when he suddenly turned elsewhere? If so, why would he do that? Did the district dither? Did the officials pooh-pooh the gift because Mr. Moskow attached too many conditions or because they thought they would have had to spend money complying with various federal and state regulations?

Mr. Moskow disputes the notion that he tied the donation to cumbersome conditions. “All I said was I wanted a program to benefit the gifted students, end of conditions,” he said. “I’d really like to hear them say that to my face.”

Of course, it doesn’t really matter. The bottom line remains that the district had a donor willing to pony up $2 million to help Southern Nevada’s gifted children and officials didn’t do what had to be done to get the deal completed. Somebody messed up. Badly.

The district “cannot be hurting too much” if it can afford to bungle a $2 million donation, Mr. Moskow said. The school system’s wounds appear to be “self inflicted,” he added.

It’s fair for taxpayers to reach the same conclusion.

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