School district responds to governor's proposals

With state revenues flailing and programs nearing the chopping block, Douglas County School District Interim Superintendent John Soderman responded Friday to Gov. Jim Gibbon's recent proposals for education.

"I think it will create a lively debate," Soderman said. "The governor's task is to balance the budget."

The most controversial proposal, Soderman said, is the elimination of collective bargaining.

Currently, all public employees, except state workers, have the right to unionize and negotiate contracts, something conservatives argue has dramatically inflated salaries.

"I don't know how realistic it is," Soderman said. "Collective bargaining is a tough nut, and it will create more controversy than any other issue."

However, Soderman acknowledged the challenges of collective bargaining in a budget crunch.

"When you're looking at furloughing or holding salaries, it's really not possible dealing with collective bargaining," he said. "At the end of the day, it's a crapshoot. An arbitrator who doesn't even live in the district or in our state decides how our money is used."

But Soderman also said it's hard to know what immediate savings would be produced from the controversial measure.

"There's no clear nexus, like there is with empowerment or kindergarten or class-size reduction," he said.

Moving to the latter issue, Soderman said a discussion on the effectiveness of class-size reduction is needed.

"It's a big ticket item, and we've been doing it long enough in Nevada that we probably ought to have a data-driven discussion on what it's really doing," he said.

Class-size reduction costs the state about $145 million a year and pays for teachers to keep first- and second-grade classes at no more than 16 students per teacher and third grade at no more than 19 students.

If eliminated, the number of pupils in first-, second- and third-grade classes would essentially double, but that $145 million a year budget would be cut in half.

Soderman said none of the governor's proposals would be easy, including a measure to eliminate full-day kindergarten, which is budgeted at $25.5 million a year this biennium to cover schools in low-income areas.

Most kindergarten classes in Nevada operate half a day.

"The choices for balancing the budget at the end of the day are hard and unfortunate - choices none of us want to make," Soderman said. "There is plenty of research that shows students with solid kindergarten programs do better. But the other things proposed, other programs cut, aren't good options either. At this time, a lot of the low-hanging fruit has been picked."

Difficult, too, especially for smaller districts, Soderman said, is the proposed elimination of the state's hold harmless provision, which protects districts with declining enrollment by funding them at the previous year's enrollment.

"Eliminating hold harmless would be difficult, but we budget based on projections for the year - we don't bank on hold harmless in Douglas County," Soderman said. "If we're declining, we make cuts now, and we don't try to live off hold harmless."

One proposal Soderman supports is reversing state law that prohibits using student test scores to evaluate teachers, a prohibition which also prevents Nevada from qualifying for Race to the Top federal stimulus grants.

"To take student test data off the table legislatively, to me, seems to fly in the face of common sense," Soderman said. "Millions of dollars are spent or not spent based on test data. Principals are vulnerable based on test data, yet a large measure of test data is created in the classroom. I think the Legislature was not having an 'A' day when they decided test data could not be used in evaluations. It should go away whether there is Race to the Top money or not."

Finally, Soderman responded to a proposed statewide school voucher system that would give parents the option of sending their children to private schools with public money.

"I don't know if vouchers will help us. I guess that's money leaving our schools," Soderman said. "This seems more about education reform, well beyond our budget problems."

According to the latest numbers, the state's general fund revenues are already $72 million short of the projections used to build the state budget.

Gibbons said his proposals for education will be drafted for a special session of the Legislature, which he is expected to call in February.

"We're sitting here wondering how much," Soderman said of looming budget cuts. "We don't have a solid number to work with. We don't even have a close range of percentages."

n Nevada Appeal Reporter Geoff Dornan contributed to this article.


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