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Angie Sullivan, a third-grade teacher at Silver Elementary School, during a Clark County Education Association rally in front of Durango High School on Thursday, May 30, 2019. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Clark County Superintendent Jesus Jara said Tuesday that the school district is moving forward with employee pay raises and is hopeful a projected $17 million to $18 million budget shortfall won’t affect the classroom.

His comments came less than 24 hours after state lawmakers gaveled out for the final time, ending a legislative session where some of the largest debates centered on education. Ultimately, legislators passed bills that modernize the state’s K-12 funding formula and that should provide the Clark County School District enough revenue to offer employee raises promised by Gov. Steve Sisolak. But the jam-packed final days of the session — and the resulting legislation — drew mixed reactions from education leaders and advocates.

Jara acknowledged the legislative session wasn’t perfect but struck an optimistic tone about the partnership and problem-solving among the school district, governor and lawmakers.

“I think given where we were to where we are, we’re in a much better place,” he said during a news conference Tuesday afternoon.

Lawmakers approved SB551, which extended the state’s payroll tax rate, and AB309, which allows counties to raise their sales tax by a quarter-cent to boost school funding. In theory, those bills and other supplementary funding have freed up enough revenue for the school district to award the employee raises — a tension point all session. Jara had said the district couldn’t afford the pay raises without additional revenue and, thus, didn’t include them in the organization’s final budget, adopted last month.

Jara said the district needed roughly $166 million, including $111 million to cover the 3 percent cost-of-living pay increases, 2 percent seniority raises and higher health-care costs. (Last week, Jara said the district needed $111 million for the raises and health expenses, but on Tuesday, he clarified that the actual need was about $166 million when factoring in increased costs related to inflation, pensions and special education.)

In the end, lawmakers came close to achieving that funding request, but the district still faces a $17 million to $18 million deficit — or less than 1 percent of its annual budget — for the upcoming year.

The superintendent said the district would announce its plan to amend the budget within two weeks. He vowed to keep cuts “away from the classroom.”

Jara said he intends to work with the School Board of Trustees through the collective bargaining process to distribute the pay raises now that more money has been secured for that purpose.

But it’s not exactly a done deal.

“I need to have that money in the bank,” Jara said.

Although Democrats cheered the passage of SB551, there’s uncertainty about how it will play out. The debate over SB551 was one of the most dramatic moments Monday, as Democrats and Republicans clashed over whether to extend the Modified Business Tax rate.

All eight Republican senators opposed the bill, which initially included a requirement that it pass with a two-thirds majority. After that effort failed, though, Democrats resurrected the bill with an amendment that dropped the two-thirds requirement and eliminated new funding for Opportunity Scholarships. Democrats then passed the bill with a simple majority in the Senate.

The bill likely will land in court given Republicans’ assertion that a two-thirds vote is needed for a tax extension, which could put the education money in jeopardy. The Legislative Counsel Bureau staff, however, released a legal opinion last month asserting that a two-thirds majority wasn’t needed to undo a scheduled tax sunset.

Jara said the district would operate on “good faith” and plan for awarding the raises, but the district needs that money in its coffers to make it happen.

The Clark County Education Association, meanwhile, hasn’t backed down from its teacher strike threat. John Vellardita, the union’s executive director, reiterated Tuesday that any classroom budget cuts or failure to award pay raises would trigger a strike at the beginning of the school year.

The union has negotiations planned with the school district on Thursday. Both parties said they hope to have a revised budget plan hashed out within two weeks.

“I’m certainly not going to let this thing drag through summer,” Vellardita said, adding that the union would begin strike preparations if its demands aren’t met.

The union boss also expressed disappointment that SB543, the funding formula bill, was unveiled late in the session and then substantially revised in the waning hours Monday night. A last-minute amendment removed a requirement that school funding increase relative to inflation and instead gave the governor significant latitude in setting the education budget.

Vellardita said the funding formula overhaul also lacks new money, which he characterized as a decision based on “political calculus” rather than “policy calculus.” Sisolak, whom the teachers’ union endorsed for governor, had pledged that he wouldn’t implement any new tax streams during his first State of the State address.

The revamped funding formula and other legislation passed this session could generate a bevy of money requests when lawmakers meet again in two years. That worries Vellardita if the economy flatlines over that period.

“I see 2021 being more challenging than what we just went through,” he said.

Vellardita said teachers are frustrated and angry this legislative session didn’t produce tangible results for addressing large class sizes and outdated textbooks, among other concerns.

Parent groups and education advocates also decried the end-game maneuvering that led to changes in the funding formula bill.

“Removing the provision that required that the Governor supplement funds means that new revenue sources such as the IP1 Room Tax and Marijuana Tax dollars can continue to not increase funding for schools,” Amanda Morgan, legal director for Educate Nevada Now, said in a statement. “Additionally, we are completely ignoring the recommendations from the state’s own numerous studies, and instead are opting only to re-slice the same inadequate funding pie and forgoing any real future commitment to increased funding.”

Sisolak painted a different picture Tuesday morning, releasing a statement that lauded the legislative work done under his helm. In particular, he noted bills “making our schools and communities safer” and “passing the largest education budget in Nevada history.”

A leader of HOPE for Nevada, a parent organization that for years has been advocating for an improved funding formula, wasn’t impressed with the final product. Caryne Shea, the group’s vice president, said there’s no guarantee that any of the new education money will be here to stay.

“What we’ve gotten for this biennium has just become a larger and more intricate shell game that we’ll have to beg for in 2021,” she said.

Before the legislative session began in February, advocates had warned that Nevada was ripe for a lawsuit related to inadequate education funding.

“The work that’s been done in this session hasn’t necessarily changed that in any way,” Shea said.

 

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