Apple for the teacher?

As the Nevada Legislature prepares to convene its 2005 session, education is likely to be one of the major subjects

Activists like Vicki LoSasso, chairwoman of the Nevada Women’s Lobby, face next week’s start of the state’s whirlwind 120-day lawmaking session in Carson City with a combination of excitement and dread.

“There’s the potential to do so much good, and the potential for so much harm to happen,” she says. “It’s exciting to be part of things that are happening to change people’s lives.”

This year the Nevada Legislature begins Feb. 7, though Nevada’s 21 state senators and 42 state assemblymembers began committee work and budget reviews weeks ago. It ends June 6—at least, that’s the happy goal. In 2003, controversy over tax increases and spending plans had lawmakers in figurative fist fights, and the Legislature ended up in a series of special sessions that extended well into the summer.

Joining legislators in their lawmaking endeavors are battalions of staff workers, reporters and lobbyists—more than 200 paid and around 25 unpaid lobbyists representing entities from corporations to city governments to conservation groups.

Nevada has been the fastest-growing state in the nation for 18 years. Two years ago, a projected budget deficit had lawmakers thinking of ways to cut spending and generate new revenue. This year, the reverse is true. A $300 million budget surplus has everyone buzzing about the best way to disburse this money—send it back to the public via Department of Motor Vehicles registration refunds, as Gov. Kenny Guinn suggests, add it to the state’s savings or use it, say, to bail out the state’s Millennium Scholarship program.

Budgeting for the next two-year period, or biennium, should be much simpler given an across-the-board $2.36 billion increase in budgeted resources, a number cited in the governor’s budget that includes all of the state’s revenue streams, including federal funds, projected for the next two years.

This increase could go a long way toward accommodating the growth that’s strained state spending on everything from education to prisons to mental-health facilities. Public K-12 schools, already jam-packed with new students, are gearing up for another increase of 35,000 students over two years. Enrollment at Nevada’s already-bulging universities and community colleges is expected to increase by another 7,000.

Because more than half of state spending goes toward public education, it’s safe to say that issues like all-day kindergarten, teacher salary increases and the demands of the federal No Child Left Behind law will be at the fore in the coming months. Other hot topics include property tax relief, health care, economic growth and tugs of war over water resources.

Here’s a quick look at a few of the topics we’ll be hearing about in the coming months.

All-day kindergarten
Pupils play with blocks, trace circles on colored paper and draw with markers. One 6-year-old sits with a sheet of lined paper at a low table in the kindergarten classroom at Agnes Risley Elementary in Sparks. He’s composing a short essay in blue marker, using several words he already knows.

“I like to play with my …” he reads, pointing to each word as he speaks. He tries to sound out the unfamiliar word he wants to use next.

“Brother,” he says, eyebrows crunched. “Buh, buh, buh …” He writes the letter “b,” followed by an “o.” “Duh, duh, duh.” He writes a “d.” “Rrr.” “R.”

He ends up with “b-o-d-r” on his paper. That’s not bad for any kindergartner who’s just getting the hang of written language concepts, but it’s especially impressive for this guy, who speaks mostly Spanish at home.

In the Washoe County School District, a student’s expected to recognize and spell around 10 simple high-frequency words by the end of the year. It’s January—the midpoint of the school year—and already most of the kindergartners in Patty Nelson’s all-day class can read and spell more than 20 words. That puts them above grade level in a school that’s considered by most measures to be at-risk, where 75 percent of students are English-language learners.

Nevada’s 17 school district superintendents have asked Nevada legislators for $72 million to fund all-day kindergartens at more Nevada schools. Full-day programs, educators say, can lead to higher achievement for language learners and children from low-income families—and to improved test scores, a necessity in today’s No Child Left Behind standardized test culture.

This boast is being realized at Agnes Risley.

This is the third year that the school has had all-day kindergarten. And the results so far—posted in charts on faculty break room walls—hint at a dramatic success.

Dawna Ogden, Risley’s literacy coordinator and a kindergarten teacher herself, points to last year’s spike in the reading level of Risley’s first-graders, the first group of all-day-kindergarten graduates.

In the 2002-03 school year, less than 25 percent of first-graders (who’d been to half-day kindergarten) were at or above reading level when it came to knowing 100 high-frequency words. Less than half (47 percent) were reading at grade level, according to a standardized reading assessment.

When the all-day kindergarten grads finished first grade, those numbers shot up. Nearly 70 percent were recognizing the high-frequency words and 78 percent were reading at or above grade level on the standardized test.

“All-day kindergarten is a huge, huge benefit,” Ogden says, pointing at the charts with her glasses. “That early intervention gets kids ready to go into first grade. Without that, we could not have identified and given enough support to those kids who needed it.”

While the pupils work and play in small groups, kindergarten teacher Nelson takes children aside for individual spelling tests. She tracks each of her 34 students’ progress on handwritten sheets of notebook paper. The kids she’s worked with since fall are almost all above grade level in learning the sounds of letters and recognizing words. The new kids are behind. Agnes Risley has a high transiency rate. When new students arrive, they invariably aren’t as advanced as those who’ve been practicing skills for months. All-day kindergarten gives teachers more time to get to know these new pupils, identify needs and intervene.

Reno-Sparks Chamber of Commerce lobbyist Michael Pennington will be spending most of the next four months 30 miles from Reno-Sparks.

Photo By David Robert

Ogden has been at Agnes Risley for about seven years. Six years ago, the school began collecting literacy data, and that’s been a help in finding creative solutions for dealing with the demands of No Child Left Behind.

“No Child Left Behind demands that we impact the whole school,” Ogden says. “And to impact our schoolwork, you have to start early with all-day kindergarten.”

Next on her to-do list would be a preschool to give kids, especially English-language learners, a jump start on needed skills.

“We have to push them or they’ll fail in our academic system,” she says. “So if we start earlier, that takes some of the pressure off them.”

All-day kindergarten is one item on Nevada superintendents’ long wish list. Among other requests: $41 million in new textbooks and classroom supplies, $62 million for English-language learners and $67 million for discipline programs.

They also want about $237 million to increase teachers’ salaries by 3 percent in 2006 and again in 2007 and to shore up employee health care benefits.

That’s a bit more than Guinn’s proposal, which includes 2 percent cost-of-living pay increases each year for school district workers. That’d run the state about $127 million.

A National Education Association fact sheet for Nevada says that the average teacher salary in Nevada is $6,299 less than in other Western states and $4,572 less than average teacher salaries nationwide, “making Nevada much less competitive in attracting new teachers.”

Washoe County School District Interim Superintendent Paul Dugan agrees teacher salaries aren’t what they should be, especially for recruiting new teachers.

“A $27,000 starting salary does not recognize the importance of what they’re doing,” Dugan says. “It’s not what they need to be paid. It’s far too low.”

Assemblywoman Debbie Smith, D-Reno, says she thinks her constituents “value the importance of the public school system, … want teachers to have better pay and want kids to be ready to be productive as adults.”

The challenge, as always, is ensuring accountability. Public opinion is important to lawmakers, Smith says. She recommends sending e-mails and letters, making phone calls and attending hearings in Carson City. Meeting schedules and legislator contact information are online at www.leg.state.nv.us.

“It helps us to know that the citizens of Nevada encourage us to adequately fund and support our public education system,” Smith says.

Property tax relief
Over the past two years, the median price of a home in Washoe County has increased as much as 65 percent—and that makes homeowners happy. But with that payoff comes the stomach-churning moment when you open that new appraisal and find out your tax bill has skyrocketed. In his State of the State address this year, Guinn urged legislators to consider property tax relief solutions.

“We need to find relief for … the thousands and thousands of homeowners in Nevada who are facing this punishing burden,” Guinn said.

So far, 14 property tax relief measures are on the legislative table, from 6 percent caps to plans modeled after California’s Proposition 13.

Sen. Dina Titus (D-Las Vegas) proposes a one-year property tax freeze while the issue is under discussion.

Assemblywoman Kathy McClain (D-Las Vegas) proposes a bill that would allow property tax reductions for homeowners in times of economic hardship by limiting land value increases to no more than 2 percent for owner-occupied, single-family residences.

Other solutions include altering tax rates to lower bills, averaging property valuations over three- to five-year periods to guard against spiking bills or allowing the state to pay taxes for homeowners who can’t afford bills—collecting on the loan when the house is sold.

State, county and city officials are concerned about the proposals—as many come with a steep price tag. Freezing property taxes for a year, for example, would cost the state and local governments of Northern Nevadans around $11 million, according to a impact analysis prepared for local officials by Guy Hobbs, a Nevada tax expert. That number would include $3.6 million less in funding for the Washoe County School District. A 6 percent cap would limit income by around $5 million, including $1.6 million less for county schools.

To glean public input on the need for property tax relief, Washoe County officials will hold a workshop 1 to 3 p.m. Feb. 12 in County Commission Chambers, 1001 E. Ninth St.

To have an impact on this year’s property valuations and tax bills, legislators need to approve a plan by early March. That would give county workers enough time to incorporate the new rules before assessments for bills sent out in June.

Altruism isn’t the only driving force. If some kind of property tax relief isn’t offered soon, some fear that property owners will revolt and take matters into their own hands with far less workable or even potentially disastrous solutions sought through initiative petitions. In Incline Village, more than 1,000 homeowners filed property tax appeals.

Nevada Conservation League lobbyist Kaitlin Backlund is ready to fight out water issues at the legislature in this drought period.

Photo By David Robert

Assemblywoman Sharron Angle, R-Reno, has submitted a bill draft not unlike California’s Proposition 13, which limited annual property tax increases to 2 percent and rolled back base tax rates three years. The unintended consequence: huge deficits for local governments.

That’s a concern even for the fiscally conservative business community.

Michael Pennington, a lobbyist for the Reno-Sparks Chamber of Commerce, says Northern Nevada businesses realize the importance of balanced property tax increases, as these provide a huge slice of the funding pie for schools and other local services. While the chamber supports “reasonable tax and fee caps to prevent government from unnecessary expansion,” its analysts are are carefully examining impacts of the various property tax relief plans.

Pennington predicts that this may be one of the most controversial issues of the 2005 session.

“Everyone now is just trying to figure out what the proposals are,” he says.

Bank and entertainment taxes
In the next few months, Pennington won’t be enjoying the panoramic view of his 16th floor Reno-Sparks Chamber of Commerce office in downtown Reno. He’ll be commuting daily to Carson City—something he’s enjoyed since he first engaged in the lawmaking process as a 19-year-old University of Nevada, Reno student.

“You get hooked as a student, and you can’t ever get away,” he says.

As a lobbyist for Reno’s business community, Pennington will be watching tax issues closely. Bankers want legislators to revisit what they consider an unfair branch tax that can make the tax contributions of most banks about triple what other businesses pay.

Some businesses hope legislators clarify or get rid of a live entertainment tax enacted in 2003, which has seemed unequally applied in some instances.

In August 2003, four Las Vegas piano players complained they’d lost their jobs at a restaurant where they played background music. The live entertainment tax law would have subjected diners to an extra 10 percent charge, business owners said. In response, state officials crafted an exemption for “ambient background music.”

Economic growth
The state economy is booming as more companies move their businesses here. Despite gloomy forecasts that Nevada’s 2003 tax increases would stymie economic development, the state keeps making national lists of terrific places to relocate a business.

The governor’s budget includes money intended to continue stimulating growth and tourism, including $8.2 million for the Commission on Tourism for TV, Internet and print media ad campaigns designed to attract tourists to Nevada from the United States—and from China.

The Nevada Development Authority and the Economic Development Authority of Western Nevada would get $10 million to help with “business recruiting, relocation, retention and expansion efforts,” according to the governor’s budget, with special emphasis on development in Nevada’s rural counties.

Water and land use
During the legislative session, discussions revolving around growth and water resources will be priorities for several Nevada environmental groups, including the Sierra Club and Nevada Conservation League. Proposals like the importation of water to Las Vegas from White Pine County in eastern Nevada have hikers, boaters, sportsmen, ranchers and other rural property owners concerned.

“An awful lot of the things that Nevadans like to do for recreation—fishing, hunting, bird- watching—all focus around water,” says Kaitlin Backlund, lobbyist for the Nevada Conservation League. “There’s a need for a safe and secure water system not just for our basic needs but to maintain our quality of life. This touches every person in Nevada up and down the economic scale.”

Water resources are also points of contention in plans to develop new coal-burning power facilities, one near Ely and another northwest of Gerlach, not far from the Black Rock Desert/High Rock Canyon National Conservation Area. The latter project, a 1,450-megawatt coal-fired plant that would deliver most of its output to Southern California, is expected to require at least 15,000 to 16,000 acre-feet of water per year. Residents and desert recreation buffs fear that this could dry up the many naturally occurring springs in the area.

“We have significant concern about the environmental impacts of coal power in the state,” says Joe Johnson, a Sierra Club lobbyist. “We’re particularly opposed to plants that export their total production, using Nevada’s water and dirtying our air for California’s power.”

Health care
Many state employees were surprised to hear of Guinn’s proposal to eliminate, for new state hires, a program that grants comprehensive lifelong health benefits to state employees.

Guinn’s logic: It’s not fair to make taxpayers foot the bill for these health benefits, the likes of which most Nevadans will never see for themselves.

A U.S. Census report tallied more than 400,000 Nevada adults and children who had no health insurance at all in 2003. The majority of these uninsured, 82 percent, were workers or the members of working families, according to Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group Families USA.

That number’s only expected to rise as health care access becomes increasingly cost-prohibitive. So it’s not surprising that improved health care access for all working Nevadans is a priority for progressive groups like the Nevada Women’s Lobby. What might be more surprising to some is the strong commitment on the part of Northern Nevada’s business community to find solutions to the health care crisis.

In a June survey of constituents, the Reno-Sparks Chamber of Commerce found that 83 percent of business owners felt the issue important enough to be addressed by state legislators. Chamber members support “free-market” approaches to health care, medical malpractice tort reform and “innovation in containment of health care costs,” according to the group’s legislative policy manual.

“There are definitely problems in the accessibility and affordability of health care,” Pennington says. “There are a plethora of bill draft requests. Legislators know it’s a key issue that’s facing the entire state no matter what sector you’re in.”

After the results of the recent presidential election, Vicki LoSasso, chairwoman of the Nevada Women’s Lobby, says it was evident that Nevada groups would have to focus on efforts at home. LoSasso would be an uninsured Nevadan if she weren’t a creative problem-solver. To obtain health care, the retiree enrolled as a half-time student at Truckee Meadows Community College.

“I think we’re realizing that, in the next four years, nothing’s going to happen at the federal level that we’re going to like very much," LoSasso says. "Creative solutions are going to happen at the state level if they’re going to happen."