Nevada NewsMakers

News - April 7, 2017 - by Ray Hagar

By Ray Hagar
Nevada Newsmakers

The Washoe County School District has a plan to whittle down its $40-million operating budget deficit by $15 million by the end of the current school year.

District officials said this week on Nevada Newsmakers that they are combing every dark corner of all accounts in the $485 million operating budget. That $15 million in savings will bring the deficit down to about $25 million.

Next school year, the district hopes to knock off another $12 million to $13 million from the deficit by increasing average class size for all grades by two students -- kindergarten through the senior year in high school, said Tom Ciesynski, the district's chief financial officer.

After that? No plan has been adopted. Most of the reserves have already been spent in previous budget battles. Other tools to help defeat the deficit -- like postponing text book purchases -- can no longer be used because the arrangement with the state to do that has expired.

"Nineteen (school year ending in 2019) isn't fixed yet," Ciesynski said.

"We are just trying to get through 2018," he said. "But in our town hall (meeting with the public), I'll be talking about how we can't just be thinking about '18. We've got to be thinking about '19, too, because any savings we generate now in '18, if I can't replicate those same savings for '19, it makes the problem that much more difficult."

Ciesynski will present the class-size increase option for next year's budget and concerns for future budgets to the mostly newly-elected school board on Tuesday, April 11th.

His message is the district is running out of options.

Money raised by the recently voter-approved WC-1 will bring in public money to build and repair schools but it can't be used to shore up the operating budget. Money from the state and earmarked for particular projects, is also out-of-bounds. So thinking about life after the next school year is a priority.

"We were able to solve these problems through the fiscal year we are operating in. And now those tools are going away. So the decisions to balance the budget are getting more difficult as we move into 2018," Ciesynski said.

The district still has a $1 million contingency fund at its disposal but other accounts are so low that if they go any lower, the district's critical bond rating could be jeopardized, he said.

"We have spent down our reserves," Ciesynski said. "But you do like to keep some reserves in place. If you have no reserve, then you can get put on the state watch list for not having appropriate fund balances for a rainy day. So we have not completely spend it out."

The district has promised that no teachers will be laid off next year. However, positions are going away. Some teachers may not have the job they have now, but they will have a job, Ciesynski said.

Some of those positions going away -- teachers on special assignment or those who act as implementation specialists -- will negatively impact instruction for some of Gov. Sandoval's wide-ranging education reforms, such as 'Read By 3' program.

Under the budget plan, teachers in those jobs -- who now do more than just help with state-mandated programs -- will return to more basic assignments.

"A teacher on special assignment or who is an implementation specialist isn't a person in the classroom, Ciesynski said. "They are training the teachers. So it is a nice thing to have but it is not a 'have to have.'"

Yet it could put some teachers in a precarious position, especially when the district is rolling out a new math curriculum for elementary schools, said Kristen McNeill, Washoe's deputy superintendent.

"They (teachers on special assignment, implementation specialists) provide critical support to our new teachers and our veteran teachers," McNeill said. "They provide professional development. We have a brand new math curriculum going into our elementary schools. If I am a classroom teacher, I don't walk in on Day One knowing how to run that math program. So you need people to be able to coach you and to able to show how that math curriculum is used. So those impacts are real."

Yet there's a rub to the district's plan to increase class size: Before the district can put its plan into place, it must receive permission from the state to increase class sizes in grades 1 through 3.

Permission will probably be granted. The state has been allowed Washoe schools to go over classroom size caps since 2008, according to the Reno Gazette-Journal.

Under the proposal for 2017-18, average kindergarten classes would go from 20-to-1 teacher to 22 to 1. Grades 1 and 2 would increase to 19-1 and third grade would increase to 22-1.

Grades 4 through 6 would have 28 students per teacher, on average. Grades 7 and 8 would have a 29 to 1 ratio. The ratio for high school classes would go from 27.5 to 1 to 29.5 to 1.

The 'shock' over the $40 million budget

Ciesynski said he was surprised when former trustee Howard Rosenberg said on Nevada Newsmakers recently that he had no idea the district's budget deficit had grown to $40 million.

Rosenberg, on the board for four years, decided not to run for re-election after his term ended in 2016.

"Yes, I'm very surprised that he was surprised," Ciesynski said. "It is something that we have been talking about for 10 years."

Rosenberg said it was the superintendent's responsibility to bring the budget issues to the board. Yet budget issues were discussed at many of the board meetings Rosenberg attended over his four-year span.

"I didn't (know) and I should have," Rosenberg said on Nevada Newsmakers last month. "I had no idea. I knew we were skating on the edge. In education, you do. But every time there was a report that would come through, (it was) this was doing this and this was taking care of this and everything seemed to be, more or less, under control."

Ciesynski recalls giving budget presentations at board meetings Rosenberg attended.

"I'm very surprised that he was surprised. It is something that we have been talking about for 10 years," he said.

"I presented it (budget deficit) in front of him and the board and I know that all board members have been very aware of what our situation is," Ciesynski said.

When Rosenberg was on the school board, the district had options to avoid painful cuts -- but not now.

"The difference between today and what Mr. Rosenberg had to deal with was that we were able to solve the problem and do it in such a way that wasn't painful for our community," Ciesynski said.

"Now, we are looking at painful solutions of possible increasing our class sizes," Ciesynski said. "That is the difference of today from prior years with Mr. Rosenberg or other board members that came before him."

Rosenberg was not the only person surprised by the news of the $40 million deficit. Gov. Sandoval told the RGJ that he only found out by reading about it in that newspaper.

A citizen at Thursday's WCSD town hall meeting said he was surprised, too, especially through last year's campaign to approve WC-1.

"It is so frustrating that there was no mention of this during WC-1,"  Albert Pheneger, a parent of children in the district, told the RGJ's education reporter, Siobhan McAndrew.

Pheneger was only repeating a concern that many others have expressed. Ciesynski denied the district had a strategy through the WC-1 election cycle to stay mum about the deficit.

"Absolutely not," he said. "It has been a constant for us."

"No, there was no effort to not talk about it," Ciesynski said. "It is something we have been constantly talking about."