By SAM METZ AP/Report for America
Video by Bob Conrad / This Is Reno
CARSON CITY, Nev. (AP) — With school out for Presidents’ Day, fourth-grade teacher Lauren Proffitt was among a crowd of teachers rallying Monday at the Nevada Legislature for lawmakers to find new revenue streams to help fund schools — regardless of the pandemic and the state budget problems.
“The pandemic has really highlighted the inequity in education,” she said. “Our Legislature has got to do better for our students and for the future of the state by properly funding us and giving us the money that we need now but also ensuring that we have it five years from now and 10 years from now.”
The Washoe County School District and Anderson Elementary School, where Proffitt teaches, have been open since the start of the school year last fall. Schools are open for in-person learning in 16 of Nevada’s 17 counties. The Clark County School District remains closed.
In addition, the Legislature has been closed to the public since it reconvened on Feb. 1. Last week, lawmakers approved $477 million in emergency relief for elementary and secondary schools, which was allocated to the state as part of federal coronavirus relief. Nevada State Education Association President Brian Rippet said the funding would help during the pandemic but not solve the problems facing students and teachers long-term stemming from lack of funding.
“We are seeing a downturn with state revenue from the pandemic. But the fear is that the legislators are hiding behind that as a way to just kick the ball down the road again,” said Rippet, a science teacher from Douglas County.
Teachers and their unions say the pandemic has exacerbated problems caused by lack of funding. Before the virus hit, Nevada ranked 44th in the U.S. in per-pupil spending and its K-12 student achievement ranked 43rd. The state has among the highest class sizes and in 2020, the average fourth grade classroom had 27 students.
Teachers say the pandemic has added strain to school social workers and mental health support staff trying to help students cope with deaths in the family, economic anxiety and social isolation. Large class sizes make the logistics of returning to in-person learning difficult; and enforcing mask mandates has added additional work for teachers trying to be as effective as they were before the pandemic, teachers say.
Gov. Steve Sisolak’s budget proposal for the upcoming two years deferred the full implementation of a new per-pupil funding formula and collapsed standalone programs for class size, literacy and school safety into the formula. Rippet said the potential effects of the change was unclear but reiterated his union’s longstanding position that the core of the issue is funding rather than the formula.
The Nevada State Education Association wants lawmakers to vote to increase taxes on the mining industry to increase funding for schools. The state constitution requires two-thirds approval by lawmakers to pass any tax increases but they can put tax proposals on the ballot to be decided by voters if they pass them twice with a simple majority.
Last summer, during a special session called to address the pandemic, the Legislature passed three proposals that would increase taxes on Nevada’s mining industry. The state Constitution requires mining businesses be taxed at less than 5% of what are called net proceeds — profit minus deductions for certain costs.
Teachers demonstrating in front of the Legislature on Monday said they supported Assembly Joint Resolution 1, which would remove the 5% cap and instead tax gross proceeds at 7.75%. One-fourth of the revenue would be earmarked for health care and education.
The Clark County Education Association has also introduced proposals to raise sales and gambling taxes. Rippet said his priority was finding new revenue but noted his union preferred the mining tax proposal to those being pushed by the Clark County teachers’ union. He believes sales taxes, which are nearly 9.9% in Clark County, are regressive and taxes on gambling are already high.
Sam Metz is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.