It’s no secret that school districts across the state have made budget concessions every year for the past few years, but the state budget proposed in January by Gov. Brian Sandoval would slash funding for K-12 public education even further. According to Washoe County School District’s website, the proposed budget would decrease funding for WCSD to the tune of $75 million each of the next two fiscal years.
During Wednesday’s town hall meeting, which was organized by Parent Leaders in Education, there were questions aplenty from community members for state Sen. Don Gustavson, Assemblymen Richard “Skip” Daly and Ira Hansen and WCSD’s board of directors:
“Why is it just state workers who are being asked to sacrifice?”
“What if the state raised taxes to fund education?”
“Will improving education improve the economy by enticing new businesses to relocate to Nevada?”
Then there were accusations:
“If public schools are so great, why does Ira Hansen send his children to public school?”
“Teachers are overpaid.”
“Cutting funding for education is destroying the future.”
Throughout the meeting, legislators and school board members retained that the purpose of the gathering was to have a discussion to seek solutions.
“To be fair to our legislators, they did not create this,” WCSD Deputy Superintendent Pedro Martinez said. “We all inherited this … and we’re going to have to solve it together.
“We’re here to listen to you,” he added.
At the beginning of the town hall meeting WCSD Board President Barbara McLaury told attendees she was hoping for a productive conversation between legislators, educators and community members about how best to fund public school systems without sacrificing the quality of education.
“It’s serious business that we are embarking upon,” McLaury said.
She said the school district is concerned with how it can continue to meet the goals set forth in its strategic plan if funding continues to be diminished. WCSD’s strategic plan aims to improve student test scores, increase graduation rates, hold teachers and administrators accountable and get the community and families involved in the education process.
“Our goal is to ensure academic success for all children,” McLaury said.
Martinez said it has been one year since the strategic plan was implemented, and already the district is seeing positive results.
“After one year we are seeing amazing results, not just in one school, but in the entire district,” Martinez said. “Reed’s graduation rate went up double digits. Actually it went up in every high school in the district.”
WCSD’s budget was cut $30 million two years ago and an additional $37.5 million last year, Martinez said.
“This year $75 million will be cut on top of (those amounts),” Martinez said. “We have been very frugal and managed our money very well, but even if we use all our reserves we still have a $40 million deficit.”
The budget shortfall for 2011-2013 will equate to increased class sizes in first through third grades and further pay cuts for staff members, and Martinez worries that funds will not be available for unexpected costs such as for maintenance of facilities. He said he is open to suggestions for ways to remedy the budget problems and that he understands the need for reform in the schools.
“The reality is our economy needs to be more diversified,” Martinez said. “This is a time to either keep going where we are going or make changes.”
Reed High School student Raven Dawson, 16, said cuts to education will destroy the future and asked legislators to put funding for schools at the top of their priority list.
“What are the budget items you place above education and why?” Dawson asked. “I want a list.”
Dawson said this is her first year to attend school in Nevada and she worries about her future and what will happen to her younger brother and sister if the state’s education system crumbles.
“I want to ask them why they are going to destroy our future,” Dawson told the Sparks Tribune outside the meeting. “By cutting funding, you’ll have to raise funds for prisons (and other social programs).”
Hansen and Daly both told Dawson they put education at the top of their priority list.
“Education is number one,” Hansen said. “Fifty percent of the state budget is education.”
Still, Dawson said she is concerned because she came from a sub-par school system in Colorado.
“I’ve seen what happens,” Dawson said. “And what about the teachers? They are going to get paid less for teaching more kids.”
While some community members in attendance were under the impression teachers are overpaid, the teachers were there to protest those claims.
Teacher Bobee-Kay Clark responded to one woman’s claim that teachers, especially those who have reached tenure, are overpaid by revealing her own income. Clark said she has been teaching for 19 years and her husband also teaches.
“We make $70,000 a year between the two of us,” Clark said. “I don’t know where you got those numbers, but instead you should have thanked us for the cuts we took last year.”
Martinez said the school district compares national wage averages when determining teacher salaries and that Washoe County teacher wages are below average.
“We are not out of whack,” he said. “We are at or below the average in the country.”
Midway through the meeting Cold Springs resident Larry Dailey stood and posed a question about raising taxes to fund education to all 200 people in the room.
“How many people in this room would be willing to pay higher taxes,” Dailey asked.
Nearly every hand went up and crowd members began clapping and cheering.
Hansen and Daly said they are reluctant to raise taxes. Hansen said he believes the voters of the state elected Sandoval because of his campaign promise to balance the budget without raising taxes. Daly conceded that if the voters wanted to raise taxes for education, it is an option.
“It’s a matter of what’s important for you,” Daly said. “We’ve seen the hands here. We need to make investments to change our outcome.”