Nevada’s no stranger to commissions that act in an advisory capacity.
There’s the Commission on Minority Affairs, the Commission on Aging, the Commission on Nuclear Projects, the Commission on Educational Technology and the Commission on Ethics to name a few. Now, a new one could join that list if lawmakers pass SB543, which would revamp the state’s school funding formula and, in the process, establish a Commission on School Finance.
The proposed commission drew multiple questions during the bill’s first hearing Tuesday evening. Many of those inquiries revolved around the responsibilities and powers this body would have as it relates to K-12 education funding. On Saturday, members of the Senate Finance Committee advanced an amended version of SB543.
“I think that the intent is to be a technical committee, to provide technical guidance, to both the executive branch and the legislative branch — certainly not to usurp their power in any way, shape or form,” analyst Jeremy Aguero, who helped craft the legislation, told The Nevada Independent in an interview.
So what exactly is the role of the Commission on School Finance? Let’s take a look:
First of all, who would be on the commission?
The commission would consist of 11 members, all of whom would be appointed by either the governor or legislative leaders, according to the bill language. No members could be legislators.
Four members would be school district chief financial officers — two from districts with more than 40,000 students and two from districts with fewer students. All appointed commission members would need to be residents of Nevada and have relevant experience in public education and fiscal policy or school finance.
The goal is to fill the advisory body with technical experts, not political appointees or people representing special interests. A bill amendment reviewed Saturday addressed the makeup of the commission by barring people who have been lobbyists within the two previous years and requiring members to have a background in school finance, taxation or economics.
Commission members also must “generally reflect the geographic distribution of the state.”
What are the commission’s duties?
SB543 lays out a number of responsibilities, including guiding school districts and the Nevada Department of Education through the implementation of the new student-centered funding plan. It also gives the commission the responsibility of reviewing and recommending the statewide base per pupil funding, the adjusted base per pupil funding for school districts and the multipliers of weighted funding for various categories of students.
Additionally, the commission could recommend adding or eliminating a category of weighted funding.
“Recommend” is the key word in all of that. Those aren’t binding powers. The commission would bring its recommendations to the Legislative Committee on Education before ultimately sending them to the governor and Legislature.
But the commission does have the authority to make some determinations regarding cost adjustment factors (related to cost of living and cost of labor in various districts), additional funding for necessarily small schools, and equity adjustments for small districts.
In other words, the commission would decide some of the underlying calculations of the formula, but it would only recommend the base per-pupil and weighted funding amounts based on the available budget.
But what would the actual weights be?
SB543 proposes weighted funding for the following categories of students: those learning English as a second language (English language learners), those living in low-income households (at-risk), those who have a disability (special education) and those who are gifted and talented. So-called weighted funding would send extra state dollars to those students on top of the base per-pupil amount.
Last year, a consulting team that studied Nevada’s school finance system recommended weights of .50 for English language learners, .30 for at-risk students, 1.1 for special-education students and .05 for gifted and talented students. In practical terms, that means an English language learner would receive an additional 50 percent of the base per-pupil amount to help schools pay for the extra support he or she needs.
But fully implementing those weights would cost more than $1 billion — money the state doesn’t have right now. The bill doesn’t include specific weights or base funding targets, officials said, because including them but not being able to fund them could put the state in legal jeopardy.
Instead, those recommended weights are considered aspirational targets, which the state could move toward over time as funding levels increase. Per the proposed bill, weighted funding would never be lower than the prior year. The commission would monitor that as it recommends funding levels.
How soon would the Commission on School Finance form?
If SB543 passes the Legislature and is signed into law, the commission would be required to hold its first meeting on or before Oct. 1. There’s no set number of times the commission would meet each year, although the bill notes that the group should meet as many times “as necessary” to accomplish its tasks. It also would be subject to the Nevada Open Meeting Law.
Is any of this set in stone?
No. The bill could face more amendments during its journey, and those amendments could tweak aspects of the Commission on School Finance. For instance, one question that surfaced during the bill hearing last week was how to remove a commission member if need be. That’s an amendment under consideration.
Sen. Mo Denis, who chairs the Senate Education Committee and has spearheaded the funding formula overhaul, said he expects most amendments to be technical in nature.