Schoolyard blues

Millennium scholarships become a little more for the select few and school construction gets tougher

Weary lobbyists rested in a lounge area of the legislative building during the closing hours of the 2005 Nevada Legislature.

Weary lobbyists rested in a lounge area of the legislative building during the closing hours of the 2005 Nevada Legislature.

Photo By Dennis Myers

Nevada’s celebrated Millennium Scholarships, already becoming more difficult for low-income or working high-school students to get, will now be more difficult for them to keep.

And schools for them to study in will be more difficult to build, at least in Washoe County.

The $10,000 Millennium Scholarships, funded by the state’s share of the tobacco settlement, were created by the legislature at Gov. Guinn’s recommendation in 1999, and the state has been retreating from them since, as the earnings from the tobacco settlement have declined.

The Nevada Legislature, which adjourned last week, raised the college grade point eligibility requirement for students to retain the scholarships to 2.75.

For the graduating classes of 2003 and ‘04, students qualified with a 3.0 grade point average, but the 2003 legislature raised that threshold. For 2005 and ‘06 classes, it’s 3.1, and for 2007 and later, it’s 3.25. In addition, the lawmakers added grade requirements students must meet after they get to college in order to retain their scholarships, and the just-concluded legislature raised those requirements from 2.6 to 2.75.

The preponderance of studies and research indicates that students from low-income homes perform less well academically, thus making them less able to qualify for scholarships.

American Civil Liberties Union lobbyist Richard Siegel says the parallel between poverty and poor grades is “an absolutely perfect graph correlation” and regrets the decision to push Millennium Scholarships further out of reach for low-income students.

In some cases, low-income students work to help support their families while going to high school, and that pushes their grade average down still more. Upper-income students, meanwhile, are the least likely to need Millennium Scholarships because they have the grade-point averages to be better able to compete for other scholarships.

“I’m predicting we’re going to have a Millennial Scholarship in which the actual percentage of minority and very poor students is going to fall by 50 percent or more,” Siegel said. “And the [children of] people who are making hundred-, two-hundred-thousand, three-hundred-thousand dollar incomes who have the lowest tuition—I mean, we’re in the three lowest tuitions in the country for in-state students—and they’re getting $10,000 in addition. … It’s sort of like George Bush’s tax policy.”

The upward move in eligibility for the scholarships drew criticism. Carson City’s Nevada Appeal editorialized, “In many ways, it was those average students for whom Millennium Scholarships were intended … But legislators keep raising the bar, by requiring higher grade-point averages to qualify. Is the reason to improve the quality of the students, or to hold them more accountable for their academic careers? No, the reason largely is that the Legislature just doesn’t want to put enough money into the program to accomplish the goals Gov. Kenny Guinn set when he created it.”

Republican Sen. Mike McGinness says he doesn’t recall any discussion of linkage between grade-point average and poverty outside of committee hearings: “I don’t recall that that correlation was made” to the full Senate, he said.

“I think we had to do that to insure the scholarships went on,” McGinness said. “We had to tighten up someplace. … [Grade point average] is usually the way to gauge those.”

Meanwhile, there is a likelihood that the Washoe County School District will have rough going for the next two years in building new schools to meet the county’s rapid growth.

Unlike the state’s university system, local school districts have no call on the state’s capital-improvement funds. With a decline in the growth of the prison population, Siegel says, “The university has the capital improvement budget almost to themselves.”

That leaves the counties to fend for themselves. And Washoe County has a particular problem—it’s the only county in the state that state legislators haven’t provided with a special funding mechanism for school construction. Clark County, for instance, has been allowed to use a portion of room taxes and the real-estate transfer tax for building schools. The small counties have developer-impact fees. That allows those counties to avoid relying solely on property owners for school construction funds, which is what Washoe must do.

“All we have are voter-approved bond issues, [with] the debt retirement … from property taxes,” said Washoe County School District spokesperson Steve Mulvenon.

To tie things together neatly, a property-tax freeze enacted by the Legislature will reduce what school construction money Washoe County does have.

“We were [hurt by the freeze], but we don’t know the extent of it yet,” Mulvenon said. “I mean, whether it’s 2 million or 20 million or 200 million, until we get some definitive information from the county [tax] assessor, we don’t know. It’s going to have an impact, and the impact’s going to be negative. It’s just that the magnitude of it is unclear. And we don’t want to cry wolf until we know for sure. But it’s not good.”

The Legislature didn’t provide Washoe County with authority for a non-property tax mechanism such as other counties have to make up the lost funds, but then the district didn’t seek one.

In March, the school district produced a study saying it could lose $1.7 million under a then-undefined tax freeze during the first year of the biennium (Nevada’s Legislature must budget in two-year spans).

All this is happening at a time when the school district is experiencing some astonishing cost increases. During the legislative session, school district financial officer Gary Kraemer said construction estimates for the Cold Springs Middle School and Sepurvela Elementary School rose 40 percent in only 18 months.

Washoe County has been planning to build three new elementary schools and a middle school in the next two years.

Siegel also said the Legislature ended with school districts less able to compete for teachers than the university system. He says, “We go out of this Legislature, I think, with K to 12 significantly more challenged than is higher ed in terms of keeping up with enrollment. And also K to 12 has the ‘No Child Left Behind’ demands that higher ed doesn’t have.”