An initial hearing for SB543, the legislation that would revamp Nevada’s school funding formula, drew technical concerns from lawmakers and fractured support among rural and urban superintendents.
The nearly seven-hour joint meeting of the Senate Committee on Finance and the Assembly Committee on Ways and Means stretched well into Tuesday night. It began with a detailed presentation from economic analyst Jeremy Aguero, who helped craft the proposed student-centered funding model, and ended with hours of testimony from school administrators, union leaders, education advocates, city employees and business representatives.
The new formula, which would be phased in over two years, would transform how education money is distributed throughout the state. It would include base per-pupil funding as well as weights — extra dollars funneled to serve students who are learning English as a second language, living in low-income households, have a disability or are gifted and talented.
Lawmakers asked questions about everything from how a hold-harmless provision for rural districts would work to the makeup of a proposed Commission on School Finance, which would consist of members appointed by the governor and Legislature and oversee the new formula’s implementation. Their questions or suggestions, mostly technical in nature, didn’t dim enthusiasm for the long-awaited bill among some who spoke during the public comment period.
Superintendents for the state’s two largest school districts — Clark County and Washoe County — testified in support of the bill, which likely would send more funding their direction.
Clark County Superintendent Jesus Jara called the bill a “game-changer” for Nevada but acknowledged the difficulties it may impose on smaller school districts. Jara said he is “sympathetic” to their needs and wants to ensure the plan works for all students across the state.
“However, I hear a clear consensus among many that Clark County should no longer continue to subsidize school districts that have lower class sizes and higher ending-fund balances than we do,” he said. “It doesn’t make sense for our 321,000 children.”
Traci Davis, superintendent of the Washoe County School District, said questions remain about how the proposed formula would affect the Reno-area district, which is the second-largest in the state (nearly 64,800 students) but one-fifth the size of the Clark County School District. Still, she said a transparent new funding formula would build trust within the community.
“I believe this is a step forward in the name of equity and adequacy,” she said.
But not everyone agrees it would improve equity.
Yvette Williams, chair of the Clark County Black Caucus, urged lawmakers to consider adding “multi-tiered weights” for students who receive free or reduced-price lunch (FRL). She said the move would foster equity because not all low-income students need the same amount of support.
She suggested creating separate weights for three categories of at-risk students based on standardized test scores: those who are least proficient academically, those who are nearing proficiency and those who are proficient. In other words, low-income students who are least proficient would receive more state education dollars.
“This system would help to hold harmless the thousands of students that are least proficient and address their needs,” she said. “We all agree that not every free and reduced-lunch student has the same needs.”
Numerous rural superintendents and teachers spoke against the proposal, saying the bill could suffocate rural schools while it tries to “hold them harmless” by maintaining funding at current levels. The formula does not allot more money to rural districts if their enrollment grows.
David Jensen, superintendent of the Humboldt County School District, said his district would lose 12 percent of its budget if it had to take the cuts in one shot.
“The proposal as we look at it simply redistributes inadequate resources, creating a series of winners and losers,” he said.
He also raised questions about whether it would be legal to sweep mining taxes, which are protected in the state constitution, into a pot to be distributed around the state.
Storey County Superintendent Todd Hess’s criticism was that locally produced taxes would be divvied up statewide. He said people in his county are often willing to accept environmental and industrial impacts such as the Tesla gigafactory “if they know that some of this local wealth will stay in these communities and schools,” he said.
But, “it appears SB543 could in the short term sweep some of the local wealth away, having a strongly negative effect.”
Advocacy group Educate Nevada Now spoke in opposition to the bill, proposing amendments allowing more money for rural districts that are experiencing enrollment growth and setting specific targets for what funding levels would be considered adequate. The Nevada State Education Association also opposed the bill on several grounds, saying educators were not sufficiently involved in the bill’s development and were not included on the proposed commission.
Lawmakers took no immediate action on the bill.