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Students stand in the hallway Tuesday, March 21, 2017 at Richard C. Priest Elementary School in North Las Vegas. Clark County School District designated the school as a turnaround after being one of the slowest-performing elementary schools in the state. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

When Clark County students went back to school last month, some entered buildings that receive less money from the district than other schools.

The disparity stems from the Clark County School District’s budgeting practice that uses an average teacher salary. The district doesn’t dole out actual dollars to each school. Instead, it allocates a certain number of licensed staff positions, taking into account factors such as enrollment projections and class-size ratios. Then the budgets are built using an average teacher salary.

The problem: Teacher salaries can range from $40,900 to nearly $91,000. So schools with less-experienced teachers who command lower salaries come in under budget but don’t actually get to save the extra money. The savings cover budget overages for schools employing higher-paid, veteran teachers.

In essence, schools with newer teachers — often in poorer neighborhoods — are subsidizing schools in wealthier parts of the county. A report highlighting the inequitable practice was released this summer. Assembly Bill 469, which codified the district’s reorganization into state law, required the Nevada Department of Education to evaluate the equity of using an average salary unit in budgets.

The 92-page report detailed what many education advocates had decried for a long time.

“It really felt like no one was listening to it,” said Sylvia Lazos, a UNLV law professor who has criticized the budgeting practice for years.

State Superintendent Steve Canavero said the report illuminates a problem vexing many school districts across the country. It’s especially timely because of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which requires districts to report school-level expenditures, he said.

“In many cases, the challenge can be so big, right, that we end up not doing anything about it,” Canavero said. “That is not what I think to be the right solution here. We have to do something about it. Our kids and our principals and teachers deserve it.”

The state’s top education official said work has begun to address the issue. The State Support Network, a federal initiative designed to help district improvement efforts, has provided funding to send a national expert to Nevada to assist, Canavero said.

But don’t expect an overnight shift from using average salaries to actual salaries in the budgeting process. An abrupt transition, he said, could be “counterproductive” and do more harm than good.

Canavero said he favors more gradual solutions that would close the equity gap. He offered this example: The district could adopt a policy that forces schools with higher personnel costs to hire newer teachers (with lower salaries) when one of their experienced educators retires or leaves. The savings could then make their way back to schools full of less-experienced teachers.

“This is a national issue,” he said. “We are jumping into it, taking responsibility and we are going to create a path consistent with the reorganization that gets this right.”

Still, Lazos said students in underfunded schools shouldn’t have to wait years for a solution. She said the Legislature could expedite the process by funding a transition from an average-salary to actual-salary budgeting method.

“You cannot improve these schools if, year after year, they’re so under-resourced,” she said. “We need to be able to provide incentives and supports to teachers that are working really, really hard in these tough social and teaching environments.”

Clark County Superintendent Jesus Jara echoed that point. He said the report has jumpstarted an important conversation about how to reduce teacher transiency at schools serving more at-risk children. New teachers typically start at those schools but move on after gaining a few years of experience.

“I think it has to be a holistic approach,” Jara said, referring to any plan designed to achieve equity across schools. “How do we incentivize and how do we recruit and retain teachers to work in those schools?”

Whatever solutions emerge, education officials and advocates agree it’s a complicated issue that deserves attention. That’s why The Nevada Independent requested budget- and demographic-related information for six schools located in various parts of the Las Vegas Valley. The numbers — shown in the graphic below — illustrate the inequities that exist between schools educating children of the same age who just happen to live in different neighborhoods.

 

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