Conflicting numbers, convoluted formula complicate effort to increase school funding

Michelle Rindels
Michelle Rindels

Emails flying back and forth between the budget chiefs at the governor’s office and the Clark County School District in late April offer a glimpse into why the two sides can’t seem to agree on how much is needed to carry out teacher raises.

With six weeks left until the state budget was finalized, the district was still seeking answers on how much additional money it would actually receive from the state in the coming year relative to the current year. The school district had been publicly saying it would receive $55 million, but in a series of insistent messages, officials sought clarification from state budget analysts about how a new re-calculation in the state’s per-pupil allocations would affect them. Would they instead be getting $72 million?

The state eventually agreed.

“In reviewing the calculation provided by CCSD the Governor’s Finance Office agrees with CCSD calculations however, the Governor’s recommended [Distributive School Account] DSA budget was final in January to meet the deadline of the State of the State,” an analyst at the governor’s office wrote the district on April 19, according to emails obtained by The Nevada Independent. “With that said I want to note that the DSA budget book includes an enrollment growth for all district and charter schools where as CCSD assumes no enrollment growth.”

The $17 million discrepancy ended up being in CCSD’s favor, but it exemplifies the challenges in defining how much school districts need from the state in the coming year. Shifting numbers are a source of frustration for legislators and the governor seeking to ensure they fund districts enough that they pass along a pay raise to teachers — something Gov. Steve Sisolak promised but can’t force districts to enact.

Sisolak’s budget proposal, which was developed based on actual expenditures from fiscal year 2018, allocated $89 million statewide in the coming fiscal year for 3 percent raises and $56 million for merit increases.

“We funded fully the budgets that we were given,” Sisolak told reporters on Tuesday. “That was funded and now the numbers have changed.”

But Clark County Superintendent Jesus Jara has said the district needs $120 million above what has been promised in each year of the biennium to remain whole — including $60 million for the 3 percent cost of living adjustment, $40 million for merit pay increases that represent movement up the salary scale, and $20 million to cover increased health insurance costs. He has declined to include Sisolak’s promised teacher raises in his tentative budget because he says the state’s contribution is insufficient to accomplish that.

The district’s case got a boost when an analysis from the nonpartisan Guinn Center think tank concluded that districts would have to cut from their current spending levels to muster sufficient money to give the 3 percent raises.

Complicating matters, distribution of funds relies on projections of student enrollment — which is growing in Clark County overall but not in the district itself, which faces competition from publicly funded charter schools.

It’s hard to pin down numbers because changes in enrollment projections are still happening — on Thursday, legislative budget committees adopted newer projections that show statewide growth will be notably slower than first expected. The change reduced the Distributive School Account’s obligations by $118 million, but that freed-up money is reverting to the general fund, and lawmakers have yet to determine where they will send it.

Then there are the many intricacies of the Nevada Plan — the state’s convoluted, 52-year-old education funding formula, which entails a multi-page Excel spreadsheet and which funding formula revamp author Jeremy Aguero has described as “entirely ridiculous.” Emails betray some frustration between the governor’s office and the district on how to use it to make calculations and whether the math was right.

“They still don’t understand how the model works if they are clinging to enrollment growth,” the district’s chief financial officer wrote in an email to other district administrators about the state’s conclusions.

The state, for its part, contends CCSD’s initial $55 million figure was based on overly pessimistic projections of enrollment and did not factor in all the different accounts from which CCSD would receive money.

District officials say the additional money the state budgeted to give CCSD in the coming school year is already designated to “fully funding school strategic budgets,” growth in special education, growth in retirement contributions and general inflation of school supplies and services. To go above that and offer raises, more state funds are needed.

Meanwhile, legislative leaders say they are skeptical of the district’s claims and that it’s hard to tell what’s essential and what’s a wish list. Sisolak said at a press conference earlier this week that CCSD’s numbers on its deficit “are a moving target.”

Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson also said there isn’t a specific dollar amount that he’s trying to find in the budget to help the districts out.

“The school districts build into what they perceive to be their needs, structural deficits that aren’t necessarily things that the legislative process deems as structural deficits, as much as maybe more of a wish list,” he said. “Last cycle there were structural issues that were not funded at over $120 million and they made do.”

CCSD has pointed to the state in the past as it has dealt with deficits: In 2015, it cited a reduction in per-pupil funding as one reason for a $67 million deficit; in 2017, it cited lower-than-expected state funding for a deficit of $60 million.

The state has faulted local decisions for the district’s budget getting out of whack. One potential reason for CCSD’s deficit figure is that they are calling for restoration of cuts that have been made in the past, rather than using the existing, lower level of funding from past cuts as a new baseline.

To get to the bottom of the discrepancies, legislative leadership’s bill to authorize a sales tax increase to support education — AB309 — also authorizes a state audit of districts’ finances.

Still, lawmakers say they’re making every effort to find more money for basic instruction. On Thursday, lawmakers voted to boost per-pupil funding by $120 in the first year and $124 in the second.

“We’re going to work in the days ahead to identify every single dollar to put into education, increasing the per-pupil funding,” Sisolak said on Tuesday.

Frierson described the school budgeting process as an exercise in trust, and — most likely in the waning days of the session — compromise.

“We had a commitment with respect to a raise for teachers, and we committed to recognizing that school districts have some challenges that we need to be flexible enough in helping them meet,” he said. “School districts are advocating for as great of an ability to provide for those needs as possible, but I think the school districts are also still assessing possible cuts that are going to impact what the ultimate need will be.”

Jackie Valley contributed to this report.


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