Gouging education

With surgical precision, school board trustees vote on proposed budget cuts

TMCC High students held a Glow for Education rally during Monday night’s school board meeting.

TMCC High students held a Glow for Education rally during Monday night’s school board meeting.

Photo by Debra Reid

The end seemed so, well, anti-climatic.

You almost forgot that chunks of flesh had been carved from Washoe County’s schools, leaving gory wounds and sore feelings. Some damage will be discovered only with the passage of time, as instructors grapple with old textbooks, more students in high school and middle school classrooms and a 10 percent across-the-board cut to an operating budget that’s already stingy when it comes to paper and staples and erasable markers for the whiteboards.

In record time Tuesday, school board trustees slickly handled the action items on their agenda. They named two new elementary schools (one in honor of local journalist Rollan Melton and the other sensibly dubbed Double Diamond for its location in that subdivision). They voted to accept a few dozen budget cuts that added up to a savings of about $8.5 million.

Only a handful of folks spoke on both issues. The meeting that started at 5 p.m. was over in less than two hours. But it wasn’t like the trustees hadn’t heard every side of every argument in the past month. Since district administrators in late February released a list of proposals to cut 40 areas and save about $9.7 million, district headquarters has received hundreds of letters and e-mails. Dozens of concerned individuals spoke at a series of town hall meetings designed to gather comments, or at least serve as a cathartic release for frustrated music and sex-ed teachers.

“I appreciate the fact that so many people were interested,” board President Nancy Hollinger said. “It is a help to us.”

The trustees had heard most of the public’s comments the day before during a long Monday night meeting. To start things off, Superintendent Jim Hager went over the budget-hacking process, saying that the problem had been evident as soon as the state Legislature, itself facing a massive budget crisis, allotted the funding for the biennium.

“We knew early on that there would be fiscal implications,” Hager said. “We talked to the governor. We went to the Legislature to say that this amount is not adequate to fund a world-class school district.”

Other school districts in the state and across the nation are also feeling the crunch hitting Washoe County. “Misery loves company,” Hager said. “And we have a lot of company. … This is a nationwide phenomenon. Revenues are very, very short.”

Washoe County’s dilemma? Funding to the district increased for the 2002-03 school year by about $114 million, still about $2,000 less per student than the national average. With increased utility and insurance bills, though, the district’s budget overshot the excess money allotted by about $8 million. So the district went to work, proposing $9.7 million worth of cuts in February. Funding was restored to a few programs by last week. About $8.7 million in cuts remained on the table Monday.

“The reality is very simple,” Hager said. “Our board has no authority to raise taxes or increase fees. We are required to give a free public education, and the only variable we can control is our expenditures.”

Hundreds of educators, parents and students sat in blood-red folding chairs as, one by one, speakers made last-ditch pitches to save the fifth-grade strings program. Or to save sexual education from being slashed. Save the Educational Media Department. Save the funding for a full-time coordinator for Wooster High’s International Baccalaureate program. Save the students of Truckee Meadows Community College High School from having to pay college tuition. (The February proposal had called for the elimination of the school, but a later proposal allowed the school to remain with fewer teachers and students pitching in to pay tuition. Students attend community college courses as part of the magnet school’s program.)

You could feel the desperation in each emotional plea.

The exploratory strings program put a violin in the hands of every fifth-grader in Washoe County for three weeks, explained Patty Dickens, a music teacher at Westergard Elementary. “It affects every fifth-grader … [$74,151] is a small price to pay for the long-range effect that it has. … Music is a universal language.”

A representative from the district’s doomed Educational Media Department, which creates educational and training videos, begged for downsizing, rather than outright elimination.

“We provide content, not entertainment. It saves the district time and money and provides compliance with the law.”

Others fought for full staffing of the Sexual Health and Responsibility Education program: “We can’t bring up the girl who didn’t get pregnant because of what she learned in SHARE. We can’t show you the boy who was protected from getting AIDS.”

Since clapping had been forbidden at the meeting—"If you applaud every speaker, we’ll be here all night,” Hollinger had warned at the start—Barbara Walsh, music teacher at Alice Maxwell Elementary, asked for a show of hands of those who supported the fifth-grade strings program. Walsh reminded the board that she’d asked to see an explanation of administrative cuts at earlier town hall meetings. She said Dr. Hager had promised to show her how the administration was shouldering its end of the burden.

“I still haven’t gotten this information,” Walsh said, pointing out that all three of the proposed administrative cuts—two administrative investigators and a volunteer services coordinator—had funding restored in the final proposal.

“We shouldn’t be cutting hands-on kids’ programs,” she said. “Possibly some of us could take up the slack in administrative positions.”

The crowd couldn’t help but break into applause at this. But Hollinger quickly put an end to that nonsense: “Please hold your applause. If you can’t, we’ll ask you to leave.”

Subsequent clapping outbreaks were met with more stern warnings. And Hollinger once called a recess, telling the clappers who couldn’t control themselves to leave. “If you can’t refrain from applauding, we’ll close down for good.”

A person sitting near asked, “Can she do that? Is that legal?”

Yes, according to the experts in the Legislative Counsel Bureau whom I called the next day. The chairperson of a public meeting has the right to control the atmosphere and kick out unruly or disruptive folk. It just may not be a great idea to squelch concerned parents, caring teachers and activist students, given the gravity of the cuts—and the fact that in this case the public official is up for reelection this year.

Hollinger later told me that clapping is not only a waste of time, but can also stop others in the audience from expressing alternate views. “Applause intimidates people who’d like to express an opinion that’s different,” she said.

In the end, the board accepted nearly all of the proposed cuts. The exception: TMCC High School juniors will not have to pay $506 in tuition as proposed starting next year. The district will be evaluating the magnet school.

And district representatives will be going to the state Legislature’s Interim Financing Committee to beg for about $1 million to restore funding for two behavior management consultants, to cover a 5 percent cut in the Educational Options Department, to fund 10 alternative-education counselor positions at high schools, and to exempt at-risk schools from the 10 percent cut to operating budgets.

The operation complete, the last trustee to leave Tuesday’s meeting lugged a hefty stack of folders, binders and paper. Trustee Anne Loring said she’d been pleased with the level of community involvement and thought that the cuts made—though painful because every program’s valuable and important—were the ones people could live with.

That’s true, of course, just as people with missing limbs can lead healthy and productive lives. But is that what we want for our kids?

Please. Hold the applause.