Washoe Schools Facing Another Round of Deficits

Aug 21, 2017

Officials with the Washoe County School District say they are anticipating a deficit somewhere between $22 and $28 million for this school year, making it the 10th year in a row the district’s expenses outpace revenue. Our News Director Michelle Billman sat down with Education Reporter Paul Boger to learn more.

Credit Julia Ritchey

So, school officials in Washoe County are looking at yet another year with large funding deficits. Can you tell us a little bit about what’s going on?

This year, district officials are looking at their tenth straight year with a deficit, and the reason for that is because Washoe schools have what is known as a structural deficit. That simply means expenditures consistently outpace revenue, and this year it looks like that hole may reach about $25 million, give or take a few million.

Now the reason for that structural deficit is really anyone’s guess at this point, but there have been some theories.

Critics argue the district is wasteful and top heavy, meaning that the amount of money spent on administration outpaces classroom spending.

However, school officials say school revenues are lagging. The state has some of the lowest per pupil funding in the country and property taxes have not kept up with increasing costs.

In my estimation, it probably a little of 'Column A' and a little 'Column B.'

But you know, I spoke with Board of Trustees President Angie Taylor over the weekend at a district workshop where they looked at the potential deficit.

“I think any kind of governmental agency always has that perception that they’re top heavy, but what I tell people is take a look at the data" Taylor said. "The data really shows that as the state of Nevada, we’re pretty low as it comes down to our ratio administrators versus those that actually teach in the schools. When it comes to Washoe, we’re even lower than that and we’re below the national average. So that perception is always there, but it’s inaccurate.”

Now, according to my research, that's not necessarily accurate, but to be fair, the district's administrative costs are very much in line with the other 13 districts in the state.

What happened to last year’s deficit, the $40 million?

Well, it’s hard to say. School finance officers have not officially closed out the FY 2017 budget. That takes time, and we’ll probably see those numbers in the near future.

However, speaking to officials, the district solved last year’s deficit in the same way they always have, with band-aids.

Over the last decade, the district has relied on things like filling funding gaps with savings or increasing class sizes. Last year, the school officials effectively cut jobs by not refilling vacant positions. Through all of that, the district was able to eliminate around $30 million of that year’s budget hole.

So, what’s the fix? How is the district planning to shore up its finances?

Well, that’s the problem, isn’t it?

Over the past decade the district and trustees, for that matter it seems, haven’t taken the steps to really sit down to learn how the structural deficit came to be or make the really hard decisions required to bring the district's spending more in line with its actual revenues.

That being said, it seems like school officials are serious this year about putting an end to this problem.

First, they’re actually looking at this deficit at the beginning of the school year. In the past, and as recently as last school year, we would go nearly the entire year and then school officials would announce that there was a deficit. This year, to the district’s credit, they aren’t pussyfooting around.

Second, school finance officers are looking into a new budgeting system developed specifically for school districts by a national public finance organization called the Government Finance Officers Association. It’s my understanding that that plan requires the district to look at individual programs offered to see if schools are getting a decent ROI or Return on Investment. In other words, if a particular program isn’t getting results, even if it promises increased opportunities for students, then it could be cut.

Speaking to District CFO Tom Ciesynski, the move may help clear some dead weight out of the district.

"We’ve got to take a look at each and every one of those programs and see which one is giving us the best bang for our buck. So, following the guidelines of this new budgetary practice, we’ll start to take a deeper dive, look at student achievement," he explained. "'Which one is giving us the best results? We got a program that's not producing great results then maybe we got to let that go even though it may still be a good program for some, but we got a program over here that [is] doing a much better job for many more.'"

So, you’ve been covering education for a while, not just here, but in other states as well. In your opinion, where can these cuts come from?

Well, this is different than a one-time deficit where a storm blows the roof off a school or flooding due to pipes bursting.

This is systemic and structural. School trustees and administrators are really going to have to make some tough decisions and potentially unpopular decisions. In my experience, those cuts usually come in the form of canceling arts classes and extracurricular activities, but that may not be enough before this is all said and done. The district may have to seriously consider layoffs, a move no one wants to make.