Making the cuts

Programs on the Washoe County School District’s budget-cut hit list include a successful alternative high school

Students attending TMCC High are getting a real-life lesson in civic activism as they fight to keep their school from becoming a victim of school district budget cuts. A proposal to eliminate the alternative high school is one of 40 items on a list that includes $9.7 million in cuts.

Students attending TMCC High are getting a real-life lesson in civic activism as they fight to keep their school from becoming a victim of school district budget cuts. A proposal to eliminate the alternative high school is one of 40 items on a list that includes $9.7 million in cuts.

Photo by David Robert

She didn’t know the girls who were taunting her in the bathroom at a public high school in Reno. It was Kristin Malm’s first day. New high school. New town. New state. The girls didn’t know Malm. And they weren’t giving her a chance.

“So I said a few choice words and ran out,” she says. “They ran out after me and chased me down the hall.”

The girls didn’t catch her.

“I’m quick,” says Malm, 17, now a senior at Truckee Meadows Community College High School. She came to Reno from Phoenix, where she’d attended a high school that she loved.

“We moved here—complete culture shock.”

After three or four weeks at the school, Malm says, she was so depressed that she just wanted out.

“I thought I’d just get my GED so I could be done and move on,” she says. “The school didn’t fit me.” Her mom told her about an alternative school, where she could finish her high school years while taking college classes.

“I thought it was probably for dorks,” she says. “But I came up here, and I was, wow, these aren’t the clichéd dorks. I love it up here.”

Even though she’s a senior who will graduate in May, Malm wants to fight for TMCC High, its existence threatened by a proposed school district budget cut that hacks more than $9.7 million from public schools in Washoe County. Other programs would be cut, including violin lessons for fifth-graders and Talent Academy, an exclusive program for gifted elementary students. New school bus and textbook purchases would be put on hold. High school class sizes would increase. But TMCC High is the only whole school (210 students in their junior and senior years) that would be cut.

Malm fears that the loss of TMCC High would leave young people like herself with fewer options and no place to go to rediscover a love of learning.

“If the school shuts down, it won’t affect me,” she says. “But the juniors here will lose everything. I don’t know how they could go back to a regular high school after this.”

Greer Gladstone is TMCC High’s half-principal. The Regional Technical Institute picks up the other half of Gladstone’s salary.

Photo by David Robert

Besides taking such interesting college courses as the psychology of dreams, second-year college Spanish and phlebotomy, Malm enjoys the camaraderie of a student body that’s not given to fighting or forming cliques. She’s made friends with others who, given the norms of a traditional high school, would have been considered off limits by her peer group.

“One day in class, I sat back and looked at the diversity of the students,” Malm reflects. “I thought, how many of these people would I be able to talk with [in a traditional public high-school setting.] About half of them, your friends wouldn’t approve of. Yet they’re all beautiful, funny and intelligent. And they all have something important to say.”

Pomp. Circumstance. Dramatic music. Dry ice. Whooshing lights. I sat in the Reno Hilton Theater as each student came forward to speak, reciting poetry or thanking parents and teachers. It was quite a production—for a high school graduation.

I didn’t know that TMCC High existed when an editor sent me to cover its graduation on a Saturday morning in 1998. I’d also been assigned stories about a Truckee River cleanup event and a bus driving competition. I hit the Hilton late in the morning. I figured I’d get in, talk to some students, gather enough quotes and scenic details to write a 10-inch story and leave.

But I stayed as students praised this new concept of a school, a place where they’d been given back their enthusiasm for learning. More than one student recited lines from Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken.”

“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I, I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”

The students of TMCC High, a public school for high school juniors and seniors, seemed thoughtful and articulate. As a mother of teenagers, I was impressed. These students wanted to try a different path, and officials had created a space for them.

A year later, my son decided to leave his high school and go to TMCC High for his senior year. He received a Millennium Scholarship, and since he’d already taken college classes during his senior year, the transition to his first year of college went relatively smoothly.

Of course, in Nevada, the fate of less-traveled roads is as predictable as the occasional summer snowstorm. Sooner or later, a budget is cut, funds are low and it starts to look pretty expensive to maintain that alternative route. If you’ve driven much in rural Nevada, perhaps you’ve come upon signs that warn you about the path less traveled:

“This road is not maintained.”

The Washoe County School District this month considers its list of about 40 proposals that would add up to a savings of $9.7 million. Those who worked on the proposal overshot the actual $8 million shortfall mark on purpose to give the school board some wiggle room. Although the district’s budget was increased to $285 million in the past legislative session, expenses of new schools, health insurance and increasing utility bills exceeded that increase. So officials went to work to balance the books. Here’s some of what they came up with—a plan that the school board will vote on March 26:

Programs district-wide would be cut 10 percent to save nearly $1.2 million. Adding one more kid to every high school classroom in Washoe County would allow the district to save another million or so. Adding the equivalent of half a kid to middle-school classrooms could save another $300,000. (In honor of this being designated the Year of the Middle School, it seems fitting for Nevada to tell teachers to do less with more students.) Some programs will be cut significantly, like sex ed (down by $322,922) and driver’s ed ($5,225). Some will be eliminated, like the Talent Academy’s program for gifted kids ($150,000), the fifth-grade strings program ($74,151) and TMCC High ($521,407).

Kristin Malm, 17, says she was jumped on her first day of regular high school. She feels safe and accepted at TMCC High.

Photo by David Robert

That the district can save half a million by closing TMCC High is arguable, insist some who point out that per-pupil expenses are nearly equivalent to those at other high schools. The school operates out of the community college, and the district doesn’t pay for use of the building or utilities. But the cost of a few of the staff members and the students’ tuition for college classes added up, budget analysts reasoned. To cap it off, it was decided that the school helped only about 210 students. Cuts to other programs could affect many more of the district’s 15,635 students.

“No one’s saying the program’s not successful,” says school district spokesman Steve Mulvenon. “There is a downside to every one of the proposals. If these weren’t valuable programs, they wouldn’t be on the payroll.”

Still. If the budget should miraculously increase in coming years, high school class sizes can theoretically decrease once again. And it’s not terribly hard to make buses once again available to ship kids around town for volleyball meets. Or to beef up driver’s ed, expand sex ed and reinstate the fifth-grade strings program.

But the folks at TMCC High have sunk the past half-decade into building a viable (and enviable) alternative high school. Their experiments and successes serve as models to others who may be exploring new ways of not only keeping teens in school, but also getting youths on the path to higher education.

In the last year, the county’s rate of high school dropouts, 4.2 percent, fell below the national average of 4.8 for the first time ever. And at TMCC High, the overall dropout rate is even less, only 2.4. And more than 70 percent of the student body received Nevada’s Millennium Scholarships last year.

If the program is aborted, this infrastructure will be lost. Reno will have lost an important facet of an education system, a program that factors into regional goals of promoting our area’s economic growth and development.

Just like that, the path less traveled could share the fate of other good things for which Nevada won’t cough up the dough:

“This road is not maintained.”

School district spokesman Steve Mulvenon is a likeable guy, and when he gets to defending the party line, his skills as a former high school debate coach shine. On a wall of his office hangs a Garrison Keillor quote: “Nothing you do for a child is ever wasted.”

I wouldn’t want to be in Mulvenon’s shoes. With every news story about a cut to this program or that, the calls and e-mails start pouring in. Like the e-mail from a woman upset about the loss of the fifth-grade strings program.

“She said, ‘You don’t value the arts’ and ‘Why don’t you look at cuts to athletics?’ “ Mulvenon says. “I pointed out that the rest of the music budget, $6 million, is untouched. That’s a pretty small cut for music to absorb.”

As far as athletics, he says, the total amount budgeted for interscholastic sports was $2.1 million.

Daniel Ruetz, 16, says TMCC High gives him both an academic challenge and a chance to explore career alternatives.

Photo by David Robert

“That’s less than one-third what we’re spending on music,” he says. Sports will also have to deal with a 10 percent across-the-board cut—and give up transportation to in-town games. “Proportionately, they’re doing more than their share.”

The school district administrators held town hall meetings and did surveys of folks who explained what kinds of cuts they could live with—and what wouldn’t work. Still, when the final list of proposed cuts was released to the school board on Feb. 22, many educators were floored—including Mulvenon, who saw some of his own programs slated for execution, like educational media ($180,868) and a volunteer services coordinator position ($66,008) created to get parents and members of the community involved in public education.

“We can’t nickel-and-dime this,” Mulvenon says. “We have to come up with $8 million, and there’s no $8 million boulder we can roll down the hill. … There isn’t fat and there isn’t fluff. There are some things we can live without. We can live without as comprehensive a sex ed program as we’ve had. We can live without paid transportation for in-town [athletic] games and higher staff ratios in high school. You get beyond some of that, and you’re talking about services for kids and people’s jobs. And it hurts.”

What about administrative cuts? Glad you asked.

” ‘How come you don’t hear about cuts for those fat-cat bureaucrats sitting back with their feet on the desk, drinking coffee and reading magazines all day?’ That’s how the issue is usually framed,” he says. “And I feel like a traitor when I respond. When I was a teacher, my wife reminds me, I said I’d never be an administrator. Now I just lay it out, and though it sounds self-serving, there’s not a lot of fat to cut there, either.”

According to the Nevada Department of Education, schools in Nevada already have a low ratio of administrators to teachers. And, under Superintendent Jim Hager, the ratio is getting lower, Mulvenon says. Hager downgraded the deputy superintendent position to a lower-paid position and has left other administrative positions open or shuffled responsibilities to existing staff as individuals retired. The district has four area superintendents, each of whom oversees 19 or 20 schools. School districts of similar size, like Seattle, have double the number of area superintendents in charge of half as many schools, Mulvenon says.

During town hall meetings, after individuals had a chance to vent, it became clear to many parents and educators that this sorry state of affairs for schools was clearly unacceptable.

“The typical reaction was, ‘This is awful. This shouldn’t be happening,’ and then, ‘How can we help?’ “ Mulvenon says. “We want to take advantage of this willingness for people to be involved.”

It’s critical for people to grasp just how little Nevadans seem to value education. Sure, we talk a good game. But a look at money shows our real priorities. Nevada spends more than $2,000 per student less than the national average. This lack of funding leads to a few decrepit school facilities, with little money budgeted for renovation. Teachers, whose salaries are embarrassingly low, buy heaps of supplies and classroom aids out of their own pockets. Students share textbooks.

Mulvenon would like to form a group of concerned parents and students to make appearances at the state Legislature in the 2003 session, putting faces and personal stories to the funding choices made by legislators.

“Maybe, to have a real impact, we need to personalize how people are affected by this,” Mulvenon says.

That said, it’s difficult for Mulvenon to explain exactly how cutting TMCC High would save the district money. When you look at the cost expenditures per pupil, the school seems right in the ballpark. Using the most recent school accountability report numbers for fiscal year 2001, TMCC High spent $6,030 per student. That’s slightly more than some schools, like Reed High ($5,394) and Galena High ($5,544) but a lot less than other schools like Incline ($7,958) or Gerlach ($14,196).

Nikki Dickman, 17, likes the TMCC High challenge.

Photo by David Robert

So Mulvenon refers me to the district’s chief financial officer, Gary Kraemer, who explains why the per-pupil comparison is meaningless. But first, Kraemer’s disclaimer:

“I’m not for or against this program,” he says. “So don’t beat me up. We were told to come up with $8 million or beyond. …”

Eliminating TMCC High would negate several budget items, including $54,002 a year to pay half of the salary and benefits of Greer Gladstone, principal of TMCC High and of Regional Technical Institute; a counselor’s salary/benefits of $72,908; a secretary’s $41,353; four teachers at $41,667 each; and 1.75 teacher assistants totaling $47,172. Add supplies ($23,551) and tuition ($75,120), and you get $521,407. That’s assuming that the high schools absorbing TMCC High kids don’t have to hire more than 3.68 teachers to accommodate them.

“If you throw another 20 kids in McQueen, they’re not going to hire another counselor,” Kraemer says. “They’re not going to hire a secretary or a teacher’s assistant.”

Might they have to hire more than 3.68 teachers, even with the new, increased 26 students-per-teacher ratio?

“That’s the gray area,” Kraemer says. “I’m not a principal. I’m a CPA.”

The tuition paid for TMCC High students turns out to be the bigger issue. TMCC charges only 25 percent of its regular tuition to the TMCC Highers. But that arrangement would end during the 2003-2004, and TMCC would then charge full tuition to the high school students. So the $75,120 formerly budgeted for the coming year would increase to more than $200,000. This cost might be offset somewhat by the reinstatement of rent payments by TMCC to the school district for use of county school facilities. But the tuition would still go up, and district officials say they’re already thinking ahead to plan more budget cuts in 2003.

“We didn’t concentrate on per-pupil costs,” Kraemer says. “We asked if that particular program were eliminated, would these students have someplace to go? The answer is yes. We have 10 other high schools.”

Mulvenon agrees.

“There are other options and other programs,” he says. “Every high school has an alternative-education program. They could go to Washoe High …”

But Washoe High School is more of a credit recovery program designed to get kids high school diplomas—or even GEDs. TMCC High is a magnet school, edging kids to college. These two places are worlds apart.

“If they want an academic challenge, they could go into the [International Baccalaureate] program at Wooster High,” he says. “That’s a terrific program.”

Dan Kulikowski, 18, says he had attendance problems before he transferred to TMCC High.

Photo by David Robert

And Wooster’s IB Program, under the proposed cuts, would lose only one position, a full-time counselor valued at $63,282.

School had become a straitjacket for 16-year-old Daniel Ruetz. He knew he needed to get as much as he could out of his high school experience. So he signed up for the IB Program at Wooster High. It offered a challenge, a solid core of college prep classes. But before long Ruetz was feeling burned out, stressed and exhausted. Because the program demanded a full load of rigorous academic courses, he had no time left in his schedule for classes he actually wanted to take.

“I was going nuts,” he says, leaning forward in a chair in one of TMCC’s student lounge areas. “My grades were dropping, and I wasn’t looking forward to getting up for school every day at all. … I was having a hard time learning because of information overload—trying to cram everything into my head at once.”

TMCC High offered an alternative. He wasn’t just preparing for college anymore. He was attending college.

“I’m getting ahead—and experimenting with different [career paths] for my future,” Ruetz says. “That way I’ll know what I want to do before I make a commitment.”

With that in mind, he’s taking the TMCC High core classes like English and history. His college classes include advanced 3-D modeling, a higher-level college math course and fencing.


“It’s very fun,” he says, smiling.

If the school closes, Ruetz will lament his chance to get a whole year of college credits before he graduates high school. He’s zoned for Reno High.

“I’ll go back and survive,” he says. “But it won’t be as good as here. This is a great learning experience, a chance to get ahead of the rest of the pack. It’s extra work, but the results are well worth your while.”

Greer Gladstone is TMCC High’s high-energy half-principal. When I visit TMCC High, Gladstone and her people there are furiously planning strategy for upcoming town hall meetings—and the final school board meeting that will decide the fate of the school.

“We have to get out who we are,” Gladstone tells the teachers. “We have to educate people.”

Erin Welken, 16, appreciates the clique-free social climate.

Photo by David Robert

The group is gathered around a table in a TMCC conference room. The teachers dig into a hearty lunch provided by a parent who’d planned the treat weeks ago, before the news that TMCC High might go away. The mother, Gladstone explains, wanted to express thanks for all the school had done to help her teen.

Gladstone gives me a quick history lesson. TMCC High was the brainchild of the district’s former assistant superintendent, Jim Welsh, TMCC Vice President Dick Brand (who passed away last week) and the community college’s director of new student programs. The group traveled to Las Vegas to observe a magnet school that gave high school juniors and seniors a chance to finish their secondary education in a mature, fast-paced academic environment.

“They were looking for an academically challenging program that met the needs of students whose needs were not being met in the traditional classroom,” Gladstone says. “What they gleaned from that visit was that when high school students were placed in a mature, college atmosphere, they’d rise to the challenge.”

The benefits of TMCC High far outweigh the costs, she says. The school’s average daily attendance is 99 percent, compared with the district average of 94 percent. TMCC High students not only maintain higher GPAs than other high school students and pass proficiency exams with greater ease, they even earn higher grades than TMCC’s college students. More than 40 percent of the TMCC High students were earning A’s in the fall 2001 semester, compared with about 34 percent of the TMCC student body at large.

“All the evidence points to the fact that we’re very successful,” Gladstone says. And word is getting out about the TMCC High experience. Students in their freshman and sophomore years at area high schools are working hard to bring up their GPAs so they can get into the program.

Wiping out the school goes against the district goals used to guide school board members in the decision-making process, Gladstone says, the first of which is: “Does the program directly impact core learning areas?”

Gladstone shows me page after page of her students’ enrollment in college classes, noting the many higher-level core classes, especially math and science.

“I’m so passionate,” she says. “I don’t want to say anything negative about other schools. But we’ve met and exceeded performance standards. Kids here are motivated. … Traditional high school meets the needs of most kids. But there’s a large percentage whose needs aren’t being met.”

TMCC High senior Dan Kulikowski, 18, considers himself in the latter group. He tells me he felt worthless during his three years at a regular high school. During his junior year, he racked up something like 40 absences.

“Teachers didn’t care if I showed up,” he says. “I felt like I was shut in a shoebox. … I didn’t see a future for myself.”

At TMCC High, teachers forced him to expect something of himself. Now he plans to get a degree in business, or go on to the Seattle Art Institute, or do both.

“Up here, if I miss a class I feel guilty,” he says. “These teachers do the maximum amount of work. They expect the same of me.”

Kulikowski calls the proposal to dump TMCC High “a total sham.”

“They’re cutting something that’s useful in getting students to continue their education," he says. When it comes to numbers of high school students going on to college in Nevada, the state ranks at the bottom, he points out. "They’re cutting something Nevada really needs. … It’s terribly sad."