Changes in state legislature add to budget problems

(Garrett Estrada photo) Finding enough school bus drivers has been just one of the challenges that the White Pine County School District faced over summer.

(Garrett Estrada photo)
Finding enough school bus drivers has been just one of the challenges that the White Pine County School District faced over summer.

As the new school year began on Aug. 24, school faculties around the White Pine County School District began another year of trying to achieve more with less. According to School District Superintendent Bob Dolezal, decisions made by the Nevada State Legislature and the residual impact of student population loss to local and online charter schools, have meant less money to go around.

During the summer, a 41-person committee comprised of school officials, parents and community volunteers looked at every aspect of the district’s spending to see where there were room for cuts. According to district Chief Financial Officer Paul Johnson, the committee needed to cut $1.2 million, or close to 10 percent, from the previous year. That meant reducing non-essential personnel to bare minimums, such as reducing the maintenance positions down to two people.

Thanks to the funding formula put forth by the state, the school district before hand knew what amount of money they could expect coming in due to the number of students. According to a provision in the formula known as “Hold Harmless,” any school district that lost 5 percent or more of its student population in one year would be able to receive funding based on the highest student population of the current year, or either of the previous two years.

The provision gave the district a buffer period to try and adapt to the opening of the Learning Bridge Charter School and various other online charter school programs. According to Dolezal, the public schools lost about 20 students per grade level to the charter schools when they opened two years ago, enough to trigger the 5 percent drop in student population.

“Well with the Hold Harmless, you may remember that when the charter school was first opening they were talking about how there was no economic impact to the district; well that was a two-year deal, and then it does have an impact because you don’t get funding for those students anymore,” Dolezal said.

But the district knew this was coming and based its 10 percent budget cuts on those expectations. What they didn’t expect was a last minute change to the funding formula put forth by the latest state legislative round.

“Every legislative session is always a surprise for us. One of the challenges within this system is that we have to submit budgets for this school year, the 15-16 school year, before the legislative session ends. Good, bad or indifferent depending on your opinion, the legislature doesn’t act upon educational issues or educational funding until the very last part of the legislative session. In all my years, they’ve always done it at the last part of the session and this year was no different,” Dolezal said.

Senate Bill 515, which covered the latest revisions to education funding, was the last bill to be introduced in the legislative session. Among the changes introduced in SB515 was the elimination of the “Hold Harmless” provision, as well as a change to how the student populations of school districts are accounted for. While the bill was passed with the best intentions of helping growing school districts, Dolezal said, it had an unintended negative impact on the rural districts that are struggling to maintain their number of students.

“We are now trying to figure out how to adjust our budget not only for this year but for the following year because we have taken an additional $730,000 hit on reduction, which is about equal to what we had in our stabilization fund to get us through next year,” the superintendent said. “I’m not sure the legislature was aware of how many districts would be put in this position but it is really detrimental to us.”

Not only will the district have to go back to either find more places to cut or use up their stabilization fund, Dolezal said the changes made to how students are counted for funding reasons also make planning for next year’s budget more difficult. Before SB515, students were counted during the fourth week of the school year on what was known as a “count day.” Under the new formula, student population will be counted based on average attendance, which will be calculated each quarter. Where as larger school districts might benefit from the fluid accounting process due to their increasing number of students throughout the year, the process leaves the White Pine County School District in ”financial uncertainty.”

“In our state there is no local source of revenue that we can generate by going to the voters to have the general operations of our district. In many other states, the state dictates how much their funding is and then local voters say how much more they want to give to their schools. Nevada does not allow that type of funding. So we have no control over our revenue,” Dolezal said.

Johnson agreed, adding that “there is no one to blame, we are just having to deal with the economic circumstance that we are in.”

“We are operating at bare minimums on certain levels because we have never been able to get the revenue that we need to put people and services back that we’ve lost for decades,” Johnson said.

For White Pine High School Principal Adam Young, the cuts have meant that more responsibility is placed on each member of the school staff as positions have been eliminated. Young credited his faculty for taking on the additional roles without complaint. Dolezal echoed the sentiment, noting that overall pay for school faculty members has not increased across the board since the recession in 2008.

But from hardship comes new ways of doing things Young pointed out, and WPHS has found one innovative way to increase the level of education in some upper level courses despite the budget constraints. The high school has seen a dramatic increase in students taking college level courses through Great Basin College and graduating with college credit, or for a few dedicated students, an Associate’s Degree.

“We’ve actually stopped offering our AP English class because so many of those students are now enrolling in English 101 and 102 at GBC and receiving credit for them,” Young said.

The principal said the cooperation between the high school and the community college is something that’s still relatively new but has been noticed by his colleagues at other schools.

“Principals from bigger high schools around the state have looked at me funny when I tell them that we had four students graduate with a two-year degree and over 60 student finish with college credit. They don’t understand how we can get those kind of numbers with the amount of kids we have,” he added.

To Young, it is just about leveraging the resources available in the community to make the best out of a tough situation.

And there are other things to be positive about, said Dolezal and Johnson. Despite the negative impact SB515 will have on the rural school districts for the time being, the legislative session did award them a bonus of $474 per student, cushioning the blow. In addition, Dolezal said he was encouraged to see the legislators taking a look into education funding and said he came away feeling like they are interested in trying to improve the model to move more money into schools.

“I think generally from a political perspective, it seems like this session compared to last session there is more of an acceptance that more money has to be put into education. I don’t think that was the case in the prior session so I think there is a turning of political opinion on that perspective,” Johnson said.