Young guns

RN&R’s high school interns ask Washoe County Schools Superintendent Heath Morrison the tough questions

Photo By Storm Kelly and A.J. Shugar

There has been much discussion of how Gov. Brian Sandoval’s proposed budget will gut the University of Nevada, Reno. What hasn’t been as much discussed is how the proposed budget will affect the students of the Washoe County School District. Our high school interns, A.J. Shugar and Storm Kelly, participants in Washoe County’s Gifted and Talented program, decided to find out for themselves by going to the top for answers. Here’s what they discovered.

How much do you think the Washoe County School District will have to cut in courses, activities, and materials such as textbooks and lunch food to meet Gov. Sandoval’s budget plan?

Well, I think it’s important to start off with where we are in the process. The governor has submitted a budget. The legislature is considering that budget right now. Now, if the legislature were to come out next week and pass that budget the way it is proposed, we are looking at it, and we think it’s about a $75 million budget cut this year and a $75 million budget production next year, because we operate on a biennium. That’s after cutting $37 million from last year, the biggest [cut] in years. And that’s according to Jeremy Aguero, who is a very noted economist in Nevada and Las Vegas. The largest budget cut in recent history in Nevada—it is one of the largest proportional cuts in the country by a state, to a state that funds education already next to last. So in terms of how we look at that $75 million, we have to at least start planning if it is—OK, if it is a 75 million cut, how would you approach it? And so we look, at what we did last year. So last year we had some contingency savings because we tried to very much monitor all of our spending, and sometimes when positions become open, we don’t fill them right away, so we built some contingency funds. We would draw down our funds balance; we would probably defer textbooks again. We took a large cut from the central services; we would do that again. We increased class sizes in grades one, two and three by two; we would probably recommend continuing that. Then we went to our employees, and we got concessions. And we would probably have to look at some concessions again from our employees. But even doing all of that, if we did everything we did last year, that got us $37 million. And we need to cut 75 [million], so there were some things that we didn’t do last year. Unlike other large school districts, we didn’t cut athletics, we didn’t cut music, we didn’t cut gifted [and talented], we didn’t cut libraries. We’d have to at least look there. [I’m] not saying we’d do it, but we’d have to look. And then even after all of that, you’d still have about a $30 to $35 million challenge. And so at that point with about 90 percent of our budget being people, you have to look at increasing class size, and we’ve looked at it, and it would take about a class size increase of about 4 to 5 kids per class, K through 12. That could be hundreds of layoffs of teachers and support staff. So, you know you can get the $75 million, but it’s very painful. It hurts the quality of the program, and it ultimately hurts the 63,000 children that we serve. And it doesn’t help us get them ready for college.

What courses would you be forced to cut? What would be at the top of the list to cut first?

Well, it’s a little different from the university system where the university looks at the whole programs. At this point, and really in a state that funds education as low as we fund it, the per-pupil in the proposed budget goes to about half the national average. The national average is about 10,000 [dollars] per pupil, and the proposed budget is about $4,900. So a lot of extras that many other states have in terms of electives, and really engaging programs that really get kids excited about staying in school, we’ve never had or we’ve already cut. And so you reach into it ’til you can’t cut any. And you can’t cut math, you can’t cut science, so what you do is you end up having to add student in those classes, so instead of having 31, 32 kids in the class, you have 36 or 37. Again it’s a little bit different model than the university system, but equally painful.

Class sizes are already big enough, are you really going to add more kids to them? Is that the only option?

Remember, it’s not something we want to do. But you have a limited number of options, again, and I don’t say this in any way to defer to painful decisions that my friend and colleague Dr. Glick [UNR president Milton Glick, who passed away shortly after this interview was conducted] has to do, but as Dr. Glick meets with his folks and says, “How are we going to approach this or work this budget?”—he says, we can raise tuition, don’t want to, but we could. We could eliminate programs, we don’t want to, but we could. Well, we can actually limit access, have fewer kids. Those are three options I don’t have. I don’t have tuition to raise. Again the programs: I can’t cut English, I can’t cut math, I can’t cut science, and then I can’t limit access. And so really it comes down to a very simple issue for us: That 90 percent of the budget being people, really to get the last big chunk of money that you have to do to balance the budget, you’re forced into increasing class size. It’s either, you have less people, or you pay them a lot less. And so there comes a point, where you ask employees to take as much of a pay cut as they possibly can and then at that point, if you still have additional that you have to cut, you end up cutting the number of people you employ. So again, nothing about this will not come without pain.

How do you feel about Gov. Sandoval’s proposal to cut the wages of teachers and the funding to education?

You know, I have said this in many, many meetings. I respect the governor; I served on his transition team. I know that he’s made his two highest priorities education and economic development. And I support him making those high priorities. I have a lot of concerns about the budget. Fifty-three percent of the budget is K-12 and higher education. And so if you’re only going to say that we have this to spend, and we’re not going to bring any other revenue, then of course you’re going to have to propose a budget with huge cuts, and I don’t think there’s any way that this budget situation gets solved without cuts. But there are other alternatives, and that is to look at additional revenue. At the last legislative session, at the last biennium, they raised a number of different taxes that we’re getting ready to sunset [allow to lapse]. If this legislature simply continued those taxes, that brings anywhere from 700 to 800 million [dollars] back into state coffers. And just one of those taxes is a local school support tax, it’s set right now at 2.6 percent and set to go down to 2.2 percent. If they kept it at 2.6, that would bring $120 million into K-12. That would be $18-19 million for Washoe County School District. So I hope as the legislature considers the governor’s budget, it will be with some consideration of revenue as well as cuts. Even if they look at revenue, the cuts that we’re going to have to make, the cuts that higher education would have to be made, will still be horrific, but at least we can get by on the short term and then hope that this economy turns around.

Would you advocate that the governor just raise taxes instead of trying to cut funds?

Well, you know, I have a day job. It’s to run a school district [laughs]. I ask for a lot of input, but I don’t propose to tell the governor how to do his business. The people elected him overwhelmingly, and I know he takes his job extremely seriously. But what I would ask is for all people who weigh on these decisions— the governor, the legislature, the citizens—to really look at a balanced approach. And if everybody takes this position where it has to be all this or all that, we’re never going to come to a consensus. And this is what I know about the state of Nevada—the great people of this state elected a governor of one party and a legislature of another party. And I think there is an expectation for compromise and collaboration. And I think if we get that, we still have to make some really horrific decisions. But there’ll be short-term decisions. We’ll get through them, and that will hopefully create a better future for my 63,000 kids and young people in college, like you two. … We’re fighting for you.

What are your feelings about the possible budget cuts for per-pupil spending when we are already ranked at the bottom five of the nation?

Photo By Storm Kelly and A.J. Shugar

Everybody says, “Run your school district like a business,” and so I say this all the time: Inputs equal outputs. And if you keep cutting the inputs, then why would you think you’re going to be able to get better outputs? Now, you can do some of that with better efficiencies at a better approach. We have a new strategic plan. We’ve got some really good success over the last year. But you reach a point where you’ve maximized your resources, and so why would anybody say if we’re going to choose to spend half of what the rest of the country spends, that we would expect to do anything but half of the results that the national average is. And if everybody says, “Hey, it’s really bad for Nevada to be last in every category of educational excellence,” then I don’t think money is the only thing, but if you fund it at that low of a level and then you’re going to cut it with one of the worst cuts in the country, then there’s a responsibility—and I say this all of the time—a community has a responsibility to its most vulnerable citizens, the elderly and the youth. And for the young, we owe you a quality education. Now, it’s not all about the money, but there has to be a sufficient amount of money to deliver the kind of education that’s going to help you go on to do the kind of things that you want to do.

What would you personally do if the governor came after the teachers’ collective bargaining right as it happened in Wisconsin?

I try to avoid hypotheticals, you know? It’s interesting that you just asked that question, because I just got off the phone with the RG-J [Reno Gazette-Journal]. And what I said is, “Listen, you know if collective bargaining went away tomorrow as a mandated obligation, we in Washoe County School District would still sit down with our employees associations. And we would still talk about salary, wages, and work conditions.” We created this strategic plan with our employee associations. We do everything in our school district with our employee associations. We have an amazing partnership. We don’t always agree, but that disagreement often at times is healthy. It makes us think about alternative ways. So we take that partnership very seriously, and if you’re going to say someone is a partner, then you have to listen, and you have to collaborate, and sometimes you have to compromise. And we don’t need a law to do that, but maybe some people do. So again, we value our partnership with our people.

But what would you do personally?

The things I have to deal with here and now are bad enough that I don’t have to think about what if this happens or that happens. You know, again—I think what happened in Wisconsin was a lot of trying to find someone to blame. And I think we have a lot of that in Nevada. We have to get out of this who-to-blame. People in the education establishment, such as it is, say it’s all about the lack of funding. And people outside the business say, “Well, why should we fund it anymore if the results are bad?” So, at some point we have to break past all of that, and say, “Let’s not worry about who to blame. Let’s worry about how to make it better.”

Well, one of the reasons I ask this question is because—

He’s a good reporter [laughs]. He keeps on asking it, and I’ll just keep avoiding it [laughs].

One of the reasons I keep asking this question is because I followed [news of the Wisconsin collective bargaining dispute] attentively, and it was saying that the governor in Wisconsin was talking to [Gov. Sandoval] in Nevada. And it’s not just a shot in the dark, there’s actually potential that this could happen, what would you really do? A lot of people have been wondering that in the school districts. Would you stand up for teachers?

Well, I try to stand up for teachers every day. I have probably provided more testimony than any other superintendent—not probably, I have provided more testimony than any other superintendent in Nevada about the budget, what the implications would be, why looking at just reducing teachers’ salaries is not something people should jump to easily. I have talked about investing in the quality of teachers and making sure everything we do in education is about putting a great teacher in front of children. So I advocate every day, and again, I don’t need a law to tell me to do it. And if there is a law or isn’t a law, I’m going to advocate for teachers and students every day.

Would you stand up for their rights to collective bargaining?

I’m going to stand up and do what I need to do to make sure that Washoe County School District continues to do the things it needs to do and get better results.

One of the things I noticed in Brian Sandoval’s campaign when he was running against Rory Reid was that he was going to introduce a merit pay system. How do you feel about the fairness of a merit pay system for teachers who teach at low-income schools?

First of all, when you say merit pay, that comes up with some negative connotations. I think what people think are fair is pay per performance. In other words, if I choose to teach in a school that has a lot of kids who are impacted by poverty, mobility and language, those additional challenges, can there be an additional pay for that? If I choose to teach in a subject area that is hard to fill—math, science, special education, English as a second language—could there be additional compensation for that, and then if I can demonstrate results, should there be additional pay for that? I think everybody says that’s pretty reasonable. So take a school like Sparks or Hug. If you’re going to say, “You only get a bonus if your results are better than anybody else’s,” which school has the highest test scores? Then a lot of people are going to say “Is that fair?” I think what people say [when arguing for merit pay] is, if you measure growth. So in other words, if you take a fifth grader and if the fifth grader comes into reading at a second grade reading level and that teacher gets him to a fourth grade reading level, they’ve done a heck of a job. If that kid came in reading at a sixth grade reading level and at the end of the year they’re still at a sixth grade reading level, then why would you give that teacher more money than that teacher? Then you’d say, “Well, this kid’s reading at a sixth grade level, and this one’s reading at a fourth, but this teacher got growth. This [other] teacher didn’t.” So let’s measure and reward the progress and the growth. So if you measure on a growth model, which is what we’re trying to build in Washoe County, then I think people feel much more fair about that. So then it’s not about where is my school and how highly able are my students. It’s about, how do I as an educator, get them from this point to that point.

What would your message be to a sixth grader to secure his future in the Washoe County School District?

My message is to take every day as a learning opportunity. Make sure that you’re focused on getting graduated because that graduation, that diploma, isn’t just a piece of paper, it’s a passport for a better tomorrow. And if you graduate, you will earn twice as much over the course of your lifetime as someone who drops out of school. And if you go on to go to college, you’ll earn twice as much over the course of a lifetime as someone who just graduates from high school. A lot of sixth graders, they like money, and so if you like money you need to get graduated and you need to think about college. But more than that, learning is an important habit, and we’re in business to try to advocate for good habits. So take every day and make it worthwhile. Carpe diem.