As the drumbeat for more education money continues, schools across Nevada did something unlikely last year — they returned more than $147,000 worth of targeted funds to the state.
Nevada Department of Education officials discussed the returned funds during a legislative committee hearing Tuesday about K-12 budgets. The money originated from Senate Bill 178, which passed during the 2017 legislative session and implemented so-called weighted funds that directed an extra $1,200 each for underperforming students in certain low-rated schools.
The six-figure sum represents a small fraction — less than 1 percent — of the $36 million allocated as weighted funding during the 2017-2018 school year. Still, the fact that $147,916 wasn’t put toward its intended purpose drew concern from Assemblyman Tyrone Thompson.
“It’s not acceptable to say ‘well, the money’s not there,’” Thompson said as he pushed for answers. “We always hear the narrative there’s not enough money.”
Six school districts and three charter schools returned money they had been allocated for the 2017-2018 academic year, according to data from the Nevada Department of Education. The returned amounts ranged from $193 from the Humboldt County School District to $61,872 from Nevada Virtual Academy, an online charter school. The Clark County School District returned $302.
Susan Ulrey, who oversees the SB178 program for the education department, said schools and districts were required by law to return any funds not used by June 30, 2018. The extra money was designed to help schools provide academic interventions to the most at-risk students.
“I think that the very small percentage of funds that was returned shows that the schools and districts were successful in expending the funds for the students that met the eligible criteria,” she said. “I would look at it more as a percentage than as a dollar amount.”
Reasons for the returned funds varied. Ulrey said some rural schools struggled to hire the right personnel for the intervention programs, while others wound up with several hundred unused dollars after carefully spending their funds.
The Churchill County School District gave back its entire allotted amount — $24,000 — for the 2017-2018 academic year. Superintendent Summer Stephens, who started last summer, said her understanding is that “logistical issues” played a role in the district’s inability to use the money.
The rural district received the funds after plans for the 2017-2018 year were in place, she said, and the amount wasn’t enough to cover the cost of starting any new improvement program.
“We certainly do not like turning back any money, but I think it was all in the process last time,” Stephens said.
The Churchill County School District won’t be returning any funds this time. The district received SB178 funds totaling $510,000 this year, Stephens said, and has spent all that money on class-size reduction efforts and various academic supports at an elementary, middle and high school.
Nevada Virtual Academy, which gave back the largest amount of money, also blamed its funding return on timing. Emily Riordan, a spokeswoman for the online school, said the Nevada State Public Charter School Authority did not transfer the SB178 funds to Nevada Virtual Academy until September 2017.
“As a result NVVA was unable to allocate all the funds to fill positions for the entire school year,” she said in a statement. “That, coupled with actual resource costs coming in lower than expected, meant that the school did not spend the entirety of its award during the 2017/18 school year.”
The Washoe County School District returned $15,291 or about 4 percent of its allocation. District officials said they considered that amount “reasonable” because it’s difficult to spend down grant amounts to a precise end point. Rather than risk cost overruns, they erred on the side of caution.
“In closing, we would ask that SB 178 funds be subject to the same biennium carryover regulations in the Victory and Zoom programs, which would make all three types of schools equal in the ability to carryover funds from the first year of the biennium into the second year of the biennium,” David Lasic, Washoe County School District’s chief of staff, wrote in a statement.
Sen. Joyce Woodhouse, who is vice chair of the Senate Education Committee, said lawmakers will be examining that issue as they craft a bill for a new funding formula. The forthcoming bill will address the various categorical funds that exist — such as Zoom and Victory programs — along with SB178 money.
Zoom and Victory funds help schools serving large populations of students learning English as a second language and children from low-income households. SB178 funds, meanwhile, have gone to students performing in the bottom quartile who don’t attend a Zoom or Victory school and who don’t receive special education services.
Gov. Steve Sisolak has said he wants the state to move away from categorical funds, which only serve certain schools, and toward a weighted-funding model that would let education dollars follow students based on their needs.
“I just can’t say exactly how it’s going to land because we’re still working out the details,” Woodhouse said.
When lawmakers approved SB178 in 2017, it carried a $72 million price tag — or $36 million per year of the biennium. It was enough money to serve 30,000 students each year.
Sisolak wants to nearly double weighted funding for the next biennium. His budget proposal includes an additional $33.9 million per year for SB178 funds, meaning roughly 58,250 students could benefit. That would allow the funds to reach all students performing in the lowest quartile regardless of their school’s star rating. As it stands now, only the most underperforming students in lower-rated schools receive SB178 funds.
Although some districts or schools returned SB178 funds after the first year, the money didn’t go unused. Ulrey said the state has allocated that money to Centennial High School in Las Vegas, which was the next school with eligible students on the list.
Centennial High School has the remainder of this academic year to put those funds to use.