With mere weeks remaining in the legislative session in Carson City the bill revamping the distribution of education funds in the state landed with a 120-page thud on Monday in the form of Senate Bill 543, which is being pushed by several Las Vegas Democrats. It doesn’t appear to bode well for rural school districts.

The bill replaces the current 50-year-old Nevada Plan with something called a Pupil-Centered Funding Plan.

The Nevada Plan is weighted to take into account the transportation costs in each county, as well as the relative wealth in each county. Thus, poorer rural counties with long commutes get more money per pupil. For example, in fiscal year 2016 the statewide average per pupil funding was $5,710, but Esmeralda County got $24,331 per pupil, while Lander got only $4,374.

In his State of the State speech at the beginning of the session, Gov. Steve Sisolak said, “I also look forward to working with legislative leadership to review the decades old Nevada Plan to ensure that tax dollars for education follow the student. We have to make sure our statewide funding formula is equitable for every student in every county.”

SB543 creates a Commission on School Funding that is directed to set a base amount of funds for each pupil in the state but then would establish a multiplier on that base for each pupil that is an English-learner, at-risk, disabled or gifted and talented. Presumably if the base per pupil funding was set at say $5,000, each one of the designated special category pupils would be funded at that amount times some multiplier — say 1.5, for example. The bill leaves the multiplier up to the commission.

The bill also redirects a number of taxes and fees to the State Education Fund that currently are distributed to the school district in the county in which the revenue is generated.

On Sam Shad’s “Nevada Newsmakers” radio interview program this past week Ruben Murillo, president of the Nevada State Education Association, said he had been briefed on the proposal then being discussed behind closed doors and said it could potentially be harmful to rural school districts. 

“I really can’t go into detail but it seems like unless there is additional funding that comes in, it is rearranging the money,” Murillo told Shad. “We need to make sure there is additional revenue that comes in that also expands the pie, not to just rearrange it.”

Murillo went on to say, “The rural counties are really in a precarious position, based on revenues. If there are not any additional increases in revenues, it is going to be a challenge for our rural school districts to continue to be able to pay their teachers and provide programs.”

As Murillo told Shad, the changes are not scheduled to go into effect until 2021.

Meanwhile, Murillo said there appears to be enough money in the current budget to fully pay for Gov. Sisolak’s promised 3 percent teacher raise, but only for the first year of the biennium. In fact, Clark County, which is scheduled to approve its annual budget in a few days, has not budgeted for any raises, and the Guinn Center for Policy Priorities has estimated Sisolak’s proposed budget falls about $107 million short of providing enough money for the teacher raises.

“So districts are going to have to find a way to have that money to support the raises, which means, potentially, layoffs and cuts in programs in order to fund that salary increase,” Murillo said.

This whole endeavor appears to be a money grab for Clark County — pulling into the statewide fund money once earmarked for local schools and increasing the per-pupil-funding for the district with the most English-learners. This should not be cobbled together in the closing days of the session without adequate public scrutiny and input. — TM