Published Online: February 5, 2010

Nev. Schools Seek Flexibility With Budget Woes

Nevada school superintendents pleaded with state lawmakers Thursday for flexibility from educational mandates to try to meet a 10 percent budget reduction that could mean thousands of teacher layoffs statewide.

Superintendents appearing before the Legislature's Interim Finance Committee proposed shortening the school year and bigger class sizes to help bridge an estimated $166 million shortfall in education spending. They also suggested an emergency declaration to suspend some collective bargaining agreements.

Education officials acknowledged the state's dire fiscal crisis and that layoffs would be necessary, but said waivers from mandates would help minimize job losses and impacts on students.

"We recognize how serious it is," Walt Rulffes, superintendent of the Clark County School district in southern Nevada, said of the state's financial crisis.

School officials say personnel costs and teacher contracts make up the bulk of their costs and tie their hands in seeking reductions unless unions agree to reopen negotiations.

Eliminating one day of the required 180-day school year would save about $13 million, said Jim Wells, deputy superintendent with the Nevada Department of Education.

Rulffes said adding one student to every class in grades one through 12 would eliminate about 400 teachers and save his district about $26 million.

"Cutting people," he said, "that's really our only avenue to pursue."

Heath Morrison, Washoe County superintendent, said a 10 percent cut amounts to $39 million for his district in Reno and could result in the layoffs of 470 teachers and 100 support staff.

"That's why I think the call is, please give us as much flexibility as you can," Morrison said.

Lynn Warne, president of the Nevada State Education Association, opposed suspension of collective bargaining agreements.

"Yes, we have a crisis facing the state," she said, but maintained that negotiations were the best way to find solutions at the local level.

Later in the day, Dan Klaich, chancellor of Nevada's Higher Education System, said the proposed $147 million in cuts facing higher education will devastate campuses and programs.

"We will lose entire colleges at UNR and UNLV," he said of the state's two universities in Reno and Las Vegas. "I believe in all my heart the cure here is going to put us in a place we don't want to be."

The hearing followed the release late Wednesday of some proposals by Gov. Jim Gibbons to cut $880 million from the budget for the biennium that ends June 30, 2011.

Those proposals include laying off 234 workers, closing the 140-year-old Nevada State Prison in Carson City and the Summit View Youth Correctional Center in Las Vegas.

The layoffs don't include potential teacher cuts or higher education staff.

But even if all the governor's recommendations were enacted, they'd cover less than half the anticipated funding gap, meaning more cuts or added revenues must be found.

Gibbons will detail the state's fiscal crisis and call a special session of the Legislature in a televised speech Monday night.

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