Little help for Nevada higher ed budget cuts

While a few rays of economic sunshine beamed down this week on Nevada's educators in kindergarten to 12th grade, their counterparts in the college and university system are still feeling decidedly under the weather.

After an Economic Forum meeting predicted higher tax revenue, Gov. Brian Sandoval pledged almost all of the newfound money, $242 million, to strained elementary and high schools. He recommended using the funds restore per-student spending, full-day kindergarten and class size reduction.

Looking on wistfully are members of the Nevada System of Higher Education, which got about $20 million to add toward more than $200 million in cuts and is still facing degree program eliminations, rural satellite site closures, 10 to 15 percent tuition hikes and 5 percent employee pay cuts.

"It was certainly disappointing," said Chancellor Dan Klaich. "It was a non-event. I don't mean to say $20 million was irrelevant, but if you look at overall improvement of this economy, and this modest allocation of funds, it's not a game changer."

Nevada's colleges and universities are going before legislative money committees Saturday, where lawmakers will debate how much to appropriate to the system. Democratic leaders said they want to add back $123 million more to the system than the governor recommended, amounting to a much softer, 10 percent cut.

Democrat-controlled money committees were similarly generous Wednesday when they overrode Republican objections and granted K-12 schools about $650 million more than the governor recommends - at least on paper. The move has created a giant budget gap that cannot be filled apart from the politically challenging step of a tax increase.

K-12 leaders said they appreciate the support but won't rejoice until real money comes in to back up the promises. Democrats on Thursday proposed a $1.5 billion tax package, which the governor and Republicans renounce as a mistake that could reverse a frail recovery.

Higher education relies far less on state support than do K-12 schools, because about one-third of the system's operating budget is paid by student fees. Klaich said that's understandable: A college education is elective and it's a personal investment in greater future income. Unlike elementary and high schools, Nevada's colleges and universities can generate revenue through tuition and fee increases, charging students for meal plans, or increasing rent rates at the dorms.

But the cut is faster and deeper than the system can absorb without faculty layoffs and other fallout. And more fee hikes, especially after several years of increases, can be a tipping point that keeps students out of school, said Kyle George, president of the UNLV Graduate and Professional Student Association.

"There's not a state priority for higher ed," said Board of Regents Chairman James Dean Leavitt. "And that's troubling."

Higher education advocates have also faced a tougher messaging campaign, Leavitt said. It's harder to communicate the nuances of the college and university system's budget. It's easier to communicate the problem of junior high students sitting on the floor of an overcrowded classroom or studying from a 20-year-old textbook, and the stigma of Nevada's last-in-the-nation high school graduation rate speaks to a wide audience.

"Politically, it's easy to sell that he cares," said George. "You can pander to people who aren't informed about the program."

The key is selling Republicans, who have stood firm behind Sandoval's no-new-taxes policy, on the idea that raising taxes to support education is an investment, not a damper on the economy. The tax package can't survive without their votes.

"I was pleased to see the importance the legislators ascribed to the K-12 budget, and I hope they take the same view to higher ed," Klaich said. "What they were saying is that education is critical to the future of our state, and to keeping this economic recovery - as frail as it is - going."

Leavitt said the game's not yet over, and he's "cautiously optimistic" the budget will work out, although regents need to set next year's fees within a few weeks and the clock is ticking.

Others on the Board of Regents saw discouraging signs in this week's K-12 budget-setting process. There may be more money on paper, but with a series of party line votes, nobody moved much closer to the only thing that could spare the system the cuts it anticipates: compromise across the aisle.

"Education is a hostage in the budget fight," said regents Vice Chairman Jason Geddes.


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