By VERNON ROBISON
Moapa Valley Progress
A local school that has been feeling the squeeze of Clark County School District (CCSD) budget cuts finally settled into an uneasy status-quo last week. Nearly a quarter of the way into the school year, a final budget decision for Mack Lyon Middle School was handed down from CCSD central administrators.
Lyon school administrators were initially told that the school’s teaching staff would be cut by two teaching positions from its 2016-17 levels. But last week’s decision split that loss and gave one of the two positions back to the school.
Though not entirely content with the decision, Lyon principal Ken Paul said that he was glad, at least, to have the final verdict made on the long contested issue. “At least we have a final decision now and we can move forward with the school year,” Paul said. “It really has been an all consuming process for a while.”
A Year Of Tough Decisions
Paul, and the School Operations Team (SOT) that advises him in governing the school, has been faced with some difficult choices over the past nine months.
In January, Paul was told by CCSD central officials that he would be losing one teaching staff position at the school. At around the same time, the school’s art teacher made a decision to retire, preventing the need to surplus a teacher from the school. But it also meant that the school’s popular art program would disappear.
Unfortunately, that was not all of the impacts felt by the school at that time. Because the school’s staffing is so small, such changes tend to have a rippling effect, Paul said. That’s because teachers at rural schools tend to serve various roles, often teaching more than one subject in order to present a comprehensive program for students. Tightening the belt in one place can have effects elsewhere.
“Our teachers are stretched thin,” said Mack Lyon parent Aimee Houghtalen, who also serves on the SOT. “I know one teacher who is doing four subjects. Thank goodness that we have such dedicated people. But they do it just to make the education equitable for the kids. And at this point, if you take one away from that balance, a lot of elements are lost.”
Thus, in addition to the art program, the school had to suffer a loss to its Credit Retrieval program. This program focused on students who were struggling to pass necessary classes to advance to high school. Under the program these students had been offered a small group setting to review the material they had previously failed and meet the required standard.
The Lyon Credit Retrieval program had been very successful. “We had 34 students in the program, and by the end of the year there was only one student that didn’t promote to high school,” Principal Paul explained. “That is a pretty good record.”
But due to the loss of the teaching position last year, that program is no longer available at the school. Instead, Paul has had to resort back to scheduling the remedial students in the class along with previous year’s students. “It is not nearly as effective,” he said. “The classes are bigger and (the students) usually have to work with the same teacher they had the year before.”
Also impacted by the loss of the one position is the school’s career and technical offerings. Lyon has typically offered courses in computer coding, robotics and had a very successful Future Cities program. January’s cut threatened the future of all three of these.
Paul explained that he was able to salvage these programs by reallocating funds from the school’s strategic budget which had been earmarked for other uses. Teachers were asked if they would voluntarily give up their prep periods and the SOT voted to use about $30,000 in strategic budget funding to buy out those teacher preps. This saved the three programs, Paul said.
These tough decisions had kept the school with its nose above the water since January. But a few weeks ago, Paul was told that the cuts were still not over. The school was in line to lose another teacher. This would be much more catastrophic to the school’s programs, Paul said.
“With that, the impacts would not just be on electives anymore,” Paul said. “That cut would have also hit us at the core subjects. It was going to be ugly.”
Striking a Balance
On Monday, Oct. 2, Paul travelled to Las Vegas for a meeting with CCSD Superintendent Pat Skorkowsky and Chief Financial Officer Jason Goudie. He was given the chance to plead the cause for restoring both positions to the school. In the end, he only got back one position.
In a Parent Advisory Council (PAC) meeting held at the school on Thursday, Paul reported the proceedings of the meeting and the result. Parents were disappointed in the result.
“It seemed like the (superintendent) meeting was all for show,” said Houghtalen after the PAC meeting. “They already had predetermined the outcome. The message was pretty clear that we should realize that we have it pretty good out here and we were just going to suffer.”
At the PAC meeting, Paul reported that Skorkowsky had sat down and reviewed with him the school’s class schedule, making specific suggestions on ways that class sizes could be increased to easier absorb the loss.
This approach was not accepted well by parents who sit on the SOT. “That is micro-managing,” said Houghtalen. “And it goes completely against the legislation that is trying to bring decision-making back to the local school.”
Houghtalen recalled that the SOT had looked into the issue of class size in great detail and had made careful decisions about it. She said that the problem was not as simple as just increasing class size.
“You can add more kids to classes, but you don’t solve the problem and you lose a lot,” Houghtalen said. “You just can’t offer an equitable education that way. We realized that after spending a lot of hours examining the problem. But the Superintendent doesn’t hear that. It would be one thing if he wanted to sit down and discuss those issues in depth and try to understand them. But the solution there is just stack more kids in a classroom and do without teachers. It is disappointing.”
Compliance With The Law
All of this raises ongoing questions about the district’s compliance with the state law.
Last year Assembly Bill 469 was passed by a bipartisan effort in the state legislature. The intent of the bill was to completely reorganize and reform the CCSD. The law contains a mandate for a major restructuring of school funding, changing it to a per pupil calculation.
But in the process of drafting the law, there were worries among legislators that small specialty schools and rural schools would end up severely underfunded due to their lower enrollment numbers. So legislators included a section stating that the new funding formulas could not negatively affect the proportion of funding that had historically been given to schools as their rural allotment. It set the 2016-17 school year as a benchmark for measuring that proportionality. Thus, if the entire district took a budget cut, then rural cuts were appropriate as well, as long as the rural allotment remained proportionally in tact. But isolated or random cuts could not be made to that rural allotment, according to the law.
A “SImple Formula”
Logandale resident Larry Moses, who sat on the Technical Advisory Committee that helped formulate the regulations of the law, says that in the case of Mack Lyon and other schools, the district is far out of compliance.
Using CCSD per pupil budget numbers for the 2016-17 year, Moses came up with a formula showing the proportional rural allotment provided to Mack Lyon Middle School last year. Student enrollment at the school has remained practically flat this year compared to 2016-17.
“From what I can tell, the (Moapa Valley) high school is back on proportion with 2016-17,” Moses said. “And Grant Bowler Elementary is in line. But the junior high is down by about $80,000. And Ute Perkins Elementary is down by $100,000 according to this formula.”
“It really isn’t complicated,” Moses added. “It is a simple formula to determine the rural allotment and it covers the intent of the law.”
But when Moses showed his formula to Goudie in a recent meeting, he was told that the district had a different interpretation.
“He told me that they were using a different formula to determine proportionality,” Moses said. “When I asked him to tell me what his formula was, I was told ‘no’. He said he would be showing it to the State Superintendent only.”
This approach is wholly unacceptable, according to Houghtalen. The lack of transparency in the basic math for determining a school’s budget makes it impossible for school principals and SOTs to do their jobs, she said.
“The intent of the law is to bring greater budget transparency and more local autonomy,” Houghtalen explained. “It needs to be clear to the SOT and school administrator. We need to know exactly what we will have to spend and the breakdown of where that number comes from. When you are not given the numbers for your own school, and you are then expected to make budget decision – well, it is just absurd!”
Moses agreed. “How hard is it to tell us the equation?” he said. “They have told us that they don’t like how it has been done in the past. So tell us how you will change it. How it has ended up, Mack Lyon is not made whole according to the 2016-17 benchmark. And no matter how they interpret it, that was the intent of the law. I know because I sat on the committee that wrote it.”