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School funding commission submits recommendations, starts examining optimal funding

by Jessica Garcia jgarcia@nevadaappeal.com

The Nevada Commission on School Funding has submitted its first series of recommendations to Gov. Steve Sisolak and the state for consideration as mandated, but figuring out how to fund districts at an optimal level according to the Pupil-Centered Funding Plan on limited resources is now its next hurdle.

The Commission turned in nine recommendations as of July 15, and it’s taken a hard look at the new funding formula in the past year since it began meeting last September. The members have had numerous conversations on state data that make every Nevada school district — and the state’s education system itself — unique and what it would take to fund them adequately to serve all students in a fair manner.

The task was daunting from the start, according to Chairwoman Karlene McCormick-Lee, a former educator and associate superintendent from Clark County familiar with working with diverse populations.

“We had to consider a number of needs, and the ways in that did they make sense based on the information that was provided,” McCormick-Lee said.

“And the question was, did that hold true and did that compare to what happens now with the weights and if that’s one component of it,” she said. “If it’s more expensive or less expensive to educate an individual child in a district such as Nye, a county of 15,000 square miles, plus or minus a few, or is it easier to do that in a district of, say, Carson City, where it’s closer together in 25 square miles versus Clark County where it’s 7,913 square miles and 325,000 students?”

The commission was formulated based on Senate Bill 543 passed last year to give an overhaul to the state’s funding formula, the Pupil-Centered Funding Plan, for the K-12 education system. The bill authorized members to monitor ongoing work on the formula and to determine where adjustments were needed to best serve the 17 districts as equitably as possible given the diversity of the state’s urban and rural populations.

The commission has examined models, based on the research and presentations of three consulting firms closely examining the data and potential outcomes of cost adjustment factors and other variables that affect Nevada’s unique educational system, which has fewer districts for its size than most, McCormick-Lee said.

“The question is the ability to leverage size,” she said. “Does it outweigh the need to try to figure out density. It wasn’t just about, you’re smaller, you get less money or you’re bigger, so you get more money. If we’re focusing on educating all students, what is it about those district characteristics that get more expensive or less expensive?”

But now the commission has turned its conversation toward optimal levels of funding and how to achieve them in the next decade, said commission member Andrew Feuling, who is Carson City School District’s chief financial officer.

This could be difficult to pinpoint given the state has a predetermined amount of cash at hand, and figuring out how to help public and charter schools in the new funding formula has meant more districts would lose than gain in the new model. The cost-based structure, using a comparative wage index and assessing adjustments for necessarily small schools, has presented many questions in daylong discussions for commission members, all of whom have been trying to determine impacts to daily school operations and student and staff needs.

“There are some districts that would be receiving more funding but because of the restricting of funding, the districts that are harmed would have to be held at the prior level of funding,” Feuling said. “It’s shifting, and (the formula) shows the money should be shifted, so it gets shifted back again to districts that get hurt so no district sees any of that benefit.”

The commission’s challenge to arrive at solutions best providing the optimal amount of funding in an equitable manner for all 17 districts was apparent from the early stages of the process. Feuling said in the new model, only a few districts would truly stand to gain without a greater pot of funding to pull from, and the requisite sum for even these school districts hardly comprised a fair amount to go around.

At the conclusion of the commission’s efforts in July to submit its initial recommendations, the letter states, one thing became clear.

“The work of the Commission highlights the fact that Nevada’s base funding must be increased,” the letter states. “This is a difficult position at a time when dollars are scarce.”

Discussions also hit snags concerning the densities of districts, Feuling described, and debating on how to make adjustments based on attendance zones rather than actual district size by population, which is an antiquated concept now. Carson City, for example, with all of its schools located so close together in the state’s capital, is considered a singular attendance zone, but Nye County is spread out. It technically has 10 areas.

“The funding will be adjusted based on the number or size of attendance areas,” Feuling said.

However, just meeting the July deadline was only the first major hurdle. Now the work is ongoing.

The commission has met nearly monthly for a year now, working on a contract basis with Las Vegas firm Applied Analysis, hearing regular presentations from Denver-based Augenblick, Palaich and Associates, which specializes in school finance and data analysis, and it will wrap up with San Francisco nonprofit WestEd. Regular representative Jeremy Aguero of Applied Analysis has assisted in reworking the funding formula.

McCormick-Lee said the members are looking ahead to using other expertise in the coming months and will seek other resources through the Department of Education to focus on the weights and district cost adjustments.

Feuling added the governor and legislators later can discuss the possibility of changing the formula if needed.

“It’s kind of a first serious stab at getting something down on paper for folks to agree on recommendations, and being able to work at it and seeing what the impacts are,” Feuling said. “It’s an ongoing body. We’ll be the ones to regularly scrutinize the formula to see what can be improved and be the protectors. … I think there will be more recommendations that likely will come out. Everyone on the commission feels like we want to provide as much guidance as we can.”