Lawmakers question Clark, Washoe school spending plans amid big budget boost

3 April 2023

Susan Enfield knew staff compensation was an issue before she became the superintendent of the Washoe County School District, but saw the problem play out in real life after meeting a restaurant hostess that also worked as a third grade teacher while getting a master’s degree in education.

“I hugged her and I apologized and I said, ‘We are going to do everything we can to make sure that you don’t have to continue to do this,’” Enfield said. 

Enfield told lawmakers during a Friday committee meeting that staff compensation is a priority not only for her, but also for the district’s school board trustees and their bargaining units because Washoe students deserve “the highest quality and most competitively compensated staff.”  

The six-hour-long meeting, which also featured leadership from the Clark County School District and the Nevada State Public Charter School Authority, was part of the lawmakers’ push for accountability from public school systems as they are expected to receive an additional $2 billion in K-12 education funding under Gov. Joe Lombardo’s recommended budget. Democrats are also pushing for a 10 percent pay increase for educators.

Legislative leaders ordered district and charter schools leaders to present their plans on how the additional funding will help them improve academic performance. They held a similar meeting with the superintendents of the 15 rural school districts last week. 

Washoe and Clark County school district leaders expressed desires to build salary increases for staff into their budgets, but the scope and size of any pay increases remains to be seen because the boards are still working on their budgets for the upcoming fiscal year and any raises would need to be negotiated with the bargaining units of district employees. 

Clark County School District Superintendent Jesus Jara said every 1 percent salary increase costs about $24 million. The district has about 28,000 employees not including long-term substitute teachers, according to its 2022-23 data. Last year, the district raised its starting salary for new teachers to about $50,000 and awarded bonuses to its veteran teachers. 

The district projects it will receive a $397 million increase in adjusted base funding. It estimates that if it funds a 5 percent cost-of-living increase and other expenses, it would have $48 million remaining. If it funds a 10 percent increase with the same increased expenses, the district would face a $84 million deficit.  

The Washoe County School District (with more than 3,900 teachers as of 2021) projects that a 10 percent cost of a living increase could cost about $46.26 million per year; a 15 percent increase cost could almost $70 million per year. 

Under the 10 percent scenario, the district would be left with nearly $30 million from its projected net surplus of $76 million, an amount calculated after taking into account increased expenses such as new school operating costs and revenue decreases because of enrollment drops, to invest in other needs. Under the 15 percent scenario, it would be less — $6.6 million. 

Washoe County School Board President Beth Smith said that even with a 15 percent increase, starting salaries for teachers would still remain below $50,000. A newly hired Washoe teacher makes at least $41,000 in annual salary, which Smith said is unsuitable. 

“This is something we’ve considered carefully, but we are going to take a people-first approach to this funding, although we recognize that where we want to be eventually is maybe not where we’re going to be able to be in this very first step,” Smith said. 

The charter school authority doesn’t set budgets for the schools it sponsors, but said increasing staff pay is a priority for the majority of its 43 charter school operators, and about 70 percent said they would use their additional state funding to do just that. 

Lawmakers also used part of the meeting to grill Clark County school leaders on concerns they said were raised by community members, particularly on the district’s poor academic performance and the 2021 raises for members of Jara’s cabinet

Lawmakers were disappointed after hearing the district’s proficiency rates in elementary school English Language Arts (41 percent), middle school mathematics (22 percent) and high school science (19 percent). Black and Hispanic students, and students who are learning English as a second language, had even lower proficiency rates in those subjects. 

“I would be lying if I didn’t say the performance metrics are extraordinarily depressing, worse than I thought,” said Assembly Speaker Steve Yeager (D-Las Vegas). 

Assembly Minority Leader P.K. O’Neill (R-Carson City) had harsher words.

“I appreciate your honesty coming in with your statistics on your performance being so miserable. I’m amazed that you brag about this,” he said. 

The district’s list of potential investments to improve student achievement included adding school police officers for better school safety, increasing the number of associate superintendent positions and addressing working conditions for educators through efforts such as updating the salary schedule and more educator planning time. 

“So I am telling you that this work can be done, but I’m also going to tell you I can’t do it alone,” Jara said. 

Assemblywoman Natha Anderson (D-Reno) questioned Jara’s decision to give $400,000 worth of raises to members of his executive cabinet in 2021. That occurred in the middle of the board’s firing and later rehiring of Jara. She asked School Board President Evelyn Garcia Morales what role the trustees played in that decision, and how those raises help improve student achievement. 

“Everybody deserves increases across the board. I mean everybody in education is underpaid, including your school board of trustees,” Garcia Morales said, adding that the state underfunds K-12 education and lawmakers have the ability to increase school districts’ budgets. 

Jara added that he gave the board a comprehensive compensation analysis and that the district is conducting another salary analysis for all of its employees. 

However, Anderson — herself a teacher at North Valleys High School in Reno — didn’t think Garcia Morales fully answered the question and said she’s speaking for Clark County educators who aren’t feeling supported. 

“I understand that these are not easy answers, but at some point you’re going to have to answer them,” she said.  

The post Lawmakers question Clark, Washoe school spending plans amid big budget boost appeared first on The Nevada Independent.

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