Schools chief responds to budget plan | RecordCourier.com

Schools chief responds to budget plan

by Scott Neuffer
sneuffer@recordcourier.com

Douglas Superintendent of Schools Lisa Noonan had mixed reaction to Gov. Brian Sandoval’s State of the State Address on Monday night, during which he proposed some wholesale reforms to Nevada’s educational system as well as reductions in funding.

In an attempt to bring state spending down to 2007 levels, the new governor proposed cutting the state’s per-pupil contribution to local school districts by $270 each year of the biennium, dropping the total per-pupil amount to $4,918 – roughly a 9-percent reduction.

“A variety of things he mentioned could all be part of the cuts,” Noonan said. “It’s too soon on our end to translate that into a single amount to work with. Ultimately, what the Legislature decides, what comes out of the final session, is what we budget with.”

Noonan said the district still has about $700,000-$800,000 from the EduJobs federal legislation passed last summer. The one-shot funding can be applied to the next fiscal year, but there’s still uncertainty just how far that money will stretch and how deep cuts will be the next two years. Plus, EduJobs money can only be spent on personnel costs.

“It won’t get us across the finish line,” Noonan said. “We will start (budgeting) at the district level and stay as far away from the classroom as we can. We can look at the operating budget, materials, training-things that don’t cost jobs right off the top. The problem is that in recent years, those margins have been where previous superintendents and board members have gone to try to protect classrooms and the workforce.

“Once we have a number, we’ll start working our way through it. There are two things we need to keep in mind: a focus on students, their needs, and flexibility, or creative solutions. I don’t want to frighten anyone. We want our employees to focus on the kids. We hope the final budget will show that intelligence went into it, that thoughtfulness went into it, consideration of a lot of factors, and, at the end of the day, our children at the center of the decision.”

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Sandoval also proposed cutting salaries of state employees, including teachers, by 5 percent. However, those cuts at the local level would be complicated by collective bargaining agreements, Noonan said.

“That would have to be negotiated,” she said. “It would take an act of the Legislature to alter our obligations and requirements under contract.”

To reform the state’s educational system, Sandoval called for the end of teacher tenure and seniority protection, the end of social promotion (moving students ahead without demonstrated proficiency), and the incorporation of student achievement data into employee evaluations.

“I think what I heard from Gov. Sandoval is what I have been hearing at the national level for a couple of years now,” Noonan said. “We have a talented and dedicated workforce, but also a small percentage, like any profession, of employees not performing at the level they should be. When I hear those kinds of comments in the public or political arena, I think they’re talking about a very small percentage of employees.

“I don’t want people to think that means the sky is falling. We have to have procedures and a fair, understandable approach to how decisions are made. I don’t know where this will lead in the way of the state or national level, but we have to follow methodology here at the local level that is sound and fair. There still is a long way to go in this journey before we reach some of the changes he proposed.”

Noonan said student achievement data should be weighed relative to other data. In the past, she’s used the example of an excellent teacher who is assigned a group of low-performing students. Data from that teacher’s classroom would have to be weighed differently than data from a classroom of AP students.

“It’s all an important part of working out these details,” Noonan said.

In regards to social promotion, she said students should receive any extra help they need in order to move forward with their peers.

“Research shows that retention has a high correlation to dropouts,” she said. “What if they have a disability? What if they are learning a language for the first time? I want to be able to make a decision at the ground level where a child is, tailored to the needs of that individual child, instead of from a legislative level far removed from the child.”

In his speech, Sandoval proposed shifting state money for eight programs, including early childhood education, class-size reductions and full-day kindergarten, into a block grant program that would allow districts to determine the best use of those funds. Essentially, the measure would remove earmarks restricting where state dollars can be allocated.

“I think that’s progress,” Noonan said. “That’s the kind of flexibility that could really help with achievement.”

However, Noonan said if there are strings attached to the grant money, then smaller districts may be at a disadvantage.

“If there are strings attached and it’s competitive in nature, then, in my opinion, it would discriminate against smaller counties that don’t have the larger central office staff to work on proposals,” Noonan said. “I have a handful of people already working too many hours a week.”

According to The Nevada Appeal, 10 percent of the block grant money would be restricted to incentive grants aimed at encouraging districts to develop creative ideas on how to improve student performance. Another 10 percent would be set aside for low performing schools.

Brian Rippet, president of the Douglas County Professional Education Association, said his first reaction to the governor’s speech was, “disappointment in the proposals to further reduce funding for education.”

“That being said, we need to understand that the governor’s proposals are just the first step in a long legislative process that determines policies and funding,” Rippet said. “The citizens of Nevada have put different parties in charge of the legislative and executive branches of government. So we expect the branches to work together toward solutions that will help our system keep progressing. We will not know the final details for several months.”