Heads in the sand

Karen Gray

Can the Clark County School District cut $63 million from its budget without touching classroom programs? Even if possible, would CCSD actually do it?

It doesn't appear the district would even consider it.

Under looming budget cuts, CCSD estimates that it will have to cut 14 percent from its Distributive School Account funding for the 2009-2011 biennial budget – or $120 million per year. This 14 percent cut to Clark County's DSA funds equals a 6 percent cut to the school district's overall general fund budget.

And, like those in the rest of the nation facing state budget cuts, Nevadans are nervous and unsure about the state of our economy. People are asking for change and demanding more accountability from their elected officials, and Clark County parents are no exception.

Perhaps that's why CCSD has capitalized on the fears of parents by placing highly popular categories of spending – extracurricular activities, class-size reductions, reading specialists and librarians – on the budget chopping block. Nothing influences a legislator more than a group of demanding, fearful constituents. And since all these suggestions were opposed in district surveys and hearings, merely hinting at such cuts gets parents ready for action.

Some residents, however, believe that smarter management of the district's $2.4 billion budget could help see CCSD through another round of budget cuts without impacting educational programs. One such parent, Kevinn Donovan, a graduate of Texas A&M's construction-management program – one of the nation's top five – has repeatedly provided the school board and Superintendent Walt Rulffes with an outline of how the district could save $54 million in operational costs alone.

CCSD board members and officials, however, have yet to even acknowledge Donovan's suggestions.

"Ultimately," Donovan says, "there are things to cut other than things in the classroom."  He believes that "Priority, job No. 1 is to educate students."  And to Donovan, that means cuts should start with administration, then special programs, and lastly, the classroom.  He feels the school district has gone about these cuts backwards – asking parents which cuts should be made in the classroom, rather than negotiating solutions with the education unions, where by far most of the district's budget is spent.  Clark County has three education unions: the Clark County Association of School Administrators, the Clark County Education Association (the teacher union) and the Education Support Employees Association.

Donovan's basic idea is to rezone the Clark County School District to better utilize the large number of vacant seats existing in the schools.  While not necessarily an easy pill to swallow, this response, given the woeful times, certainly should be looked at.

To analyze Donovan's proposal, the Nevada Policy Research Institute compared enrollment and school capacity numbers from the standpoint of CCSD budget information.

In the Henderson-Las Vegas zoning area alone, the Clark County School District has 35,596 vacant seats. Consolidation here appears to offer savings of more than $63 million in operational and school administration costs.

If CCSD were to convert all of its valley elementary schools to year-round schedules, it could close 25 elementary schools. The district currently has 90 schools on a year-round schedule. By converting all elementary schools to year-round, all schools would be on the same schedule and overcrowding could be alleviated, if not eliminated.

Conservative estimates based on lower nine-month capacity numbers show that closing 25 elementary schools could save CCSD $20.6 million annually in operational costs, plus an additional $10 million for administration.

The latter, according to CCSD documents, includes the costs of principals, assistants and the clerical staff necessary to keep a school site open. Administrative expenses do not include guidance, psychological or nursing service costs, nor janitors, cafeteria workers or hall monitors – each of which increases a school's budget. Teacher costs would not change because the number of students would remain the same and class-size-reduction policies would remain in place.

Potentially, Clark County could save $30.6 million by capturing its full elementary seating capacity on a year-round schedule and closing 25 elementary schools.

All Clark County secondary schools, whether middle or high schools, operate on a nine-month schedule and do not report year-round seating capacity.

Middle school seating capacity for the valley is 78,536, but 9,254 seats are vacant. Estimates based on the same growth rate used by CCSD suggest the district could rezone its current school boundaries, use existing empty seats and close seven of its valley middle schools.

This restructuring of school zones could yield operational savings of around $12.9 million, while saving an additional $6.2 million in administrative costs. Utilizing all the valley's existing middle school seats could save $19 million.

Likewise, rezoning valley high schools to utilize all vacancies could yield an operational savings of $9 million and administration savings of $4.3 million. These savings represent the closure of three high schools.

Naturally, any mass rezoning and full year-round conversions would come with some increased costs. However, those costs could be mitigated by savings from eliminating ancillary personnel and services for 35 campuses. Furthermore, 1,161 of the district's 1,737 portable classrooms would no longer be needed. Selling 1,000 of them could generate revenue in the millions.

The empty school campuses could be utilized by CCSD to house central administration services, reducing administrative overhead. They also might be rented to generate cash flow, or retrofitted, using existing bond funds, to house specialized programs or services. While the possibilities appear endless, the facilities would still be available for future growth and need.

As Clark County's own community surveys and hearings reveal, budget cuts call for hard decisions, and, no matter what is decided, not everyone will be pleased.

Knowing that hard times call for hard measures, one would expect the school board or Superintendent Rulffes to have at least addressed Donovan's proposal.

Why did neither of them do so?

Karen Gray is a researcher at the Nevada Policy Research Institute.