School district pays for giveaways

No one seems happy with the Washoe County School District these days. The school board is still recovering from a tumultuous couple of years, although last November’s election provided welcome relief with the addition of a number of highly respected professionals who brought stability to the public body entrusted with our children’s education.

However, the smoke and mirrors that have obscured the $40 million structural deficit have caught up to the new school board. They must contend with angry parents and disgruntled taxpayers who just ponied up $780 million in new sales taxes to fix crumbling infrastructure, and disillusioned teachers who now anticipate increased class sizes and less administrative support in the years ahead.

District officials point out the deficit has been a fact of life since 2008, but they’ve managed to balance the budget by using reserves, decreasing expenses and getting waivers to delay purchasing new textbooks and computers. Leaders say the problem stems from property tax caps, low per pupil allotments from the state and increased mandates.

It’s true that Nevada seriously underfunds K-12, at just $5,700 per student, while the national average is $11,841. It’s also true that recent tax increases have strengthened our K-12 school system but in very specific and targeted ways. And it’s quite true that the Legislature loves education mandates. This session, there are bills to require local school districts to instruct students in cursive writing, financial literacy and organ and tissue donation. Legislators also want schools to add cameras to special education classrooms, offer recess at elementary schools, and create personalized roadmaps for students. But more mandates doesn’t mean more money for schools.

District officials insist they’ve been warning of the looming deficit for years and should not be blamed now that they have run out of fiscal maneuvers. Yet many citizens feel a bit bamboozled by the district’s leadership, which encouraged the momentum of the WC-1 campaign to raise the sales tax with nary a word about the competing needs of the operational budget. Meanwhile, our low-income citizens and seniors on fixed incomes must pay more in regressive taxes without fixing the problem.

At the annual town hall in April, furious teachers demanded answers to the crisis that would not directly affect the quality of education, but those magical solutions were not forthcoming. Frustrated parents say they were blindsided by the news that next year the budget may be balanced by decreasing the number of teaching positions, reducing transportation and increasing class sizes.

Given the $96 million bonus from the Economic Forum last week, there may be some movement in the Legislature to implement a weighted formula that will bring more money to the district to help with special populations, but the bulk of the windfall will head to Clark County. And there are plenty of competing needs in the state such as mental health care, roads and various pet projects of legislators.

We should get used to these kind of structural deficit budget shocks as we’ll be feeling the effects of bad tax policy for years to come as Tesla, Apple and other corporations attract new workers from out-of-state but exempt from paying the taxes needed to support their demands on public services. Voters will continue to be unhappy when they are told there is no money to address education, traffic congestion, sewer capacity, or the crisis of affordable housing while political leaders fund a new stadium in Las Vegas for the Raiders with tax dollars.

It’s grating that economic development officials are now demanding the community address these concerns, oblivious to their own role in creating the problems through massive tax giveaways in the name of growth. They got what they wanted, though, just not what we need.