Investing in Southern Nevada’s children and working families pays dividends for all of us

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Thursday, June 13, 2019 | 2 a.m.

The Clark County School District needs immediate help in providing a stable learning environment for Southern Nevada’s schoolchildren. Meanwhile, the working-class Las Vegas residents who form the backbone of our economy face looming crises in job training and affordable housing.

But thanks to the Nevada Legislature, the Clark County Commission is in prime position to provide them all with the extra support they need.

So now, in the aftermath of Monday’s news that CCSD was eliminating 170 dean positions in middle and high schools to contend with a projected budget shortfall, commissioners should get right to work to erase CCSD’s deficit and lay the groundwork to make our community a better place for our service industry workers and others like them. Although the Legislature took major strides in improving funding for schools this year, lawmakers inexplicably left in place a $33 million gap in CCSD’s budget over the biennium, including a $17 million shortfall for the 2019-20 school year.

However, lawmakers also gave communities a way to help solve their own problems and chart their own futures, through a bill that authorizes counties to raise their sales tax up to one-quarter of a cent for education and a number of other various social service needs, such as creating more affordable housing, developing workforce training programs and addressing homelessness.

Gov. Steve Sisolak signed the bill Wednesday, and the law will go into effect July 1.

That being the case, commissioners should jump into action and take advantage of the opportunity to address our community’s needs.

We propose they immediately approve a three-year, automatically phased-in approach in which the sales tax would be increased 0.1% this year, 0.1% in 2020 and 0.05% in 2021. That’s right, a mere tenth of a cent can go a long way to closing a serious funding gap for schools and begin to provide relief for stretched working-class families.

The first increase would go toward eliminating CCSD’s $17 million deficit, with the remainder being used to bring in outside experts to conduct a comprehensive study of affordable housing, job training needs and homelessness.

The increases in 2020 and 2021 would be used for ongoing support of CCSD, completing the experts’ research, developing a comprehensive plan based on their recommendations and implementing the plan.

Both efforts are vital for our region’s long-term economic health and prosperity.

Although CCSD and districts statewide received additional funding this year thanks to the Legislature, it wasn’t enough to erase the estimated $166.9 million budget deficit the district faced as the session got underway. Coming out of the session, CCSD was still short — a problem stemming from years of underfunding, a rapidly expanding student body and an outdated funding formula that was finally updated this year.

The cuts to the dean positions are expected to eliminate the shortfall for next year. But as Superintendent Jesus Jara noted in his announcement of the cuts, nobody wants to see them happen.

“I want to be very clear — this decision was not made lightly,” he said.“And I believe all the advocates for education and those elected leaders who are fighting for change would like to avoid this from occurring.”

That’s absolutely the case, and losing the deans could have far-reaching implications for education. The deans oversee such areas as student discipline, truancy and teacher evaluations, making them an integral part of maintaining an effective learning environment for students. Although Jara said that the deans could be reassigned to classroom teaching roles, students would be much better served if the deans remained in place.

The needs of the working class are no less urgent. Every day, people in Clark County struggle to find affordable housing as rents and home prices increase. There’s a growing gap that threatens to crush the working class if we don’t have a good plan. And given that those members of our community are the lifeblood of our economy, it’s in the best interest of all Southern Nevadans for the county to develop a plan to ensure an ample supply of affordable housing.

That’s why the commission should begin working immediately toward increasing the tax. In Clark County, when fully implemented over the three years as we propose, the sales tax increase would generate about $108 million and would bump up the rate from 8.25 cents per dollar to 8.35 cents in the first year. That’s a barely noticeable increase.

Keep in mind, too, that tourists provide approximately one-third of our sales taxes.

The increase wouldn’t begin generating revenue until the spring of 2020 even if it were approved today, which is another reason the commission should vote to implement it immediately. Commissioners must find a mechanism that will allow them to advance funding from the county to CCSD in time for the next school year, knowing that the county budget can be replenished once the extra tax revenue begins to flow in during the spring. It’s not acceptable to let a full school year go by without assisting CCSD, as the brunt will be felt by a large group of people. Students will be left behind, for instance, and the deans will face pay cuts if they go back to teaching and job uncertainty if they choose to go elsewhere.

After the session, Jara was forced to make difficult decisions due to circumstances beyond his control at the Legislature. He showed leadership, and now it’s time for the county commission to do the same.

But with the exception of Tick Segerblom, a former state lawmaker who championed the legislation, commissioners have approached the opportunity warily, saying they wanted to have discussions with Jara and other recipients of the new tax revenue to ensure the funds were being used properly.

It’s OK for commissioners to make sure people are on the same page, but they can’t shuffle their feet and delay action.

The children of Clark County are facing an imminent crisis, as is the working class.

Besides, in the district’s case, accountability measures are already in place in the form of the “Focus: 2024” initiative, which Jara introduced this year.

The plan established educational performance goals and included detailed steps to make CCSD’s operations more cost efficient. And no one can accuse Jara of simply throwing money at the district’s problems willy-nilly — the plan is based on a bracing, top-to-bottom study of the district’s operations by an independent consultant.

The study identified a number of shocking problems, including the lack of an overall facilities maintenance plan that has contributed to a $6 billion backlog of upgrades and repairs, an administrative structure in which some supervisors oversaw only one person, and a complete lack of accountability measures for CCSD contractors.

In releasing the study, Jara showed that the district was willing to own up to its shortcomings. With the strategic plan, he offered a scorecard to track his progress in fixing the problems.

In other words, Jara and his team have already done much of the legwork for county commissioners in determining how the money would be spent and whether it was being spent wisely.

The bottom line is that our community’s children and working people need help, and the Legislature has given Southern Nevada greater ability to solve our own problems and determine our own future.

Let’s get cracking, commissioners.