Sisolak takes heat for not leading revenue discussions

education budget cut protestor
Protestors rally against budget cuts to education outside the Nevada Legislature on the first day of the 31st Special Session in Carson City on July 8, 2020. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Education advocates on Thursday lobbed public criticisms at Gov. Steve Sisolak for refusing to take the lead on discussions about raising revenue, and they urged legislators to step up and do something beyond slashing budgets.

The Nevada Legislature is considering reducing the Department of Education’s budget by $163 million in order to address the $1.2 billion state budget shortfall caused by the coronavirus pandemic. The budget proposal includes eliminating $70 million from funding supporting economically disadvantaged students, $31 million from Read By Grade 3 funding supporting literacy, and $18 million from class-size reduction funding.

Those cuts reflect a complete depletion of funding for all three programs.

State Superintendent Jhone Ebert told state senators her department’s priority was to preserve the guaranteed per-pupil funding provided by the Distributive Schools Account and to ensure “flexibility” by cutting in areas where money could easily be backfilled if additional money were to come in through federal relief money or other means.

When asked about priorities for possible restoration of funds, Ebert identified pre-K and early learning programming as being at the top of the list. Those programs are currently set to be reduced by $6.3 million, though part of that will be offset by federal grant money.

Summer Stephens, the superintendent of Churchill County School District, emphasized that the proposals presented by the Department of Education were a collaborative effort with state administrators, the 17 district superintendents and the executive director of the Nevada State Public Charter School Authority.

The administrators were honest about the impact.

“We know we have an extremely lean budget,” said Ebert. “Any cut does affect children.”

Clark County School District Superintendent Jesus Jara told lawmakers that schools would have some leeway in their individual budgets to try and keep programs or positions set for elimination in the budget reductions. For example, a principal could find alternative funding to keep a literary specialist on staff.

Superintendents Stephens and Jara told senators that most of the state’s 17 school districts are waiting for the outcome of the special session before finalizing how they will spend coronavirus relief funds distributed by the CARES Act. Some may use those federal relief dollars to offset cuts approved by the Legislature.

The proposed cuts are being criticized by education advocates both for being the opposite of what is needed during an ongoing pandemic and for disproportionately affecting historically disenfranchised students. Several representatives from education unions characterized Sisolak’s deferment to the Legislature on the topic of new revenue as a lack of leadership and anathema to his campaign promises of being a governor dedicated to improving the state’s lackluster education system.

Jara said CCSD needs to use its $86 million of CARES money to support its reopening plan, which requires tens of thousands of Chromebooks for students, connectivity infrastructure in schools and at students’ homes, and personal protective equipment costs for educators and staff. Even then, the district will still need additional money, as their reopening plan comes with an estimated price tag of $110 million.

Alexander Marks from the Nevada State Education Association in his public comment noted all the safety measures currently in place during the special session, which is physically closed to the public.

“The legislative building has been equipped with plexiglass, free and available hand sanitizer and masks, hands free faucets, top-of-the-line HVAC systems, and enough room to keep 63 legislators safely distanced from each other,” he said. “Every school building should receive this type of care before reopening.”

NSEA is calling for every dollar of cuts to be balanced by a dollar of new revenue.

Added Marks, “The state’s approach to revenue in the past was never sufficient, and it certainly will not be while dealing with a crisis and moving forward in a post-COVID-19 world.”

John Vellardita, executive director of Clark County Education Association, during public comment pleaded directly to specific senators on both sides of the aisle, urging them to work toward a bipartisan solution. Among those addressed were Republican state Sen. Joe Hardy for supporting Gov. Brain Sandoval’s Commerce Tax in 2015, Democratic state Sen. Julia Ratti for attempting to reform property taxes in 2019, and Democratic state Sen. Pat Spearman for introducing a bill to raise new revenue in 2015.

Added Vellardita: “There are enough smart people in this chamber to do great things for our state.”

When pressed for details on bipartisan revenue discussions during a press conference late Thursday, Democratic leadership provided little insight. Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson did say the time had come for “deeper discussions” with Republicans regarding possible new revenue.

The 31st Special Session to address the budget shortfall began Wednesday. It’s first two days included extensive presentations on proposed cuts in the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Education, the Nevada System of Higher Education and capital programs. On Friday, legislators are expected to begin discussing bill proposals for addressing the budget shortfall.

April Corbin Girnus
April Corbin Girnus is an award-winning journalist with a decade of media experience. She has been a beat writer at Las Vegas Sun, a staff writer at LEO Weekly, web editor of Las Vegas Weekly and a blogger documenting North American bike share systems’ efforts to increase ridership in underserved communities. An occasional adjunct journalism professor, April steadfastly rejects the notion that journalism is a worthless major. Amid the Great Recession, she earned a B.A. in journalism from the University of Nevada Las Vegas, where she served as editor-in-chief of the student newspaper. She later earned an M.A. in media studies and a graduate certificate in media management from The New School for Public Engagement. April currently serves on the board of the Society of Professional Journalists Las Vegas pro chapter. A stickler about municipal boundary lines, April enjoys teaching people about unincorporated Clark County. She grew up in Sunrise Manor and currently resides in Paradise with her husband, two children and three mutts.