Cheers, then jeers: Why the proposed K-12 education funding bill created questions and confusion

A student working on classwork at Pat Diskin Elementary School

What are the fruits of Nevada lawmakers’ efforts to fund K-12 education this year?

Well, that’s difficult to say because they don’t want to talk about fruit at all. They say the two funding formulas — the old Nevada Plan and the new Pupil-Centered Funding Plan — do not lend themselves to an apples-to-apples comparison.

Last week, state lawmakers patted themselves on the back for adding roughly $500 million to the education budget. Assemblywoman Maggie Carlton (D-Las Vegas), who warned there would be naysayers and skeptics, declared that she had “been waiting a damn long time to put this amount of money into education.”

The celebratory dust had barely settled before questions began emerging. When the large K-12 education funding bill (SB458) dropped earlier this week, education observers noticed a peculiar aspect in the very first section: The total public support for the upcoming biennium will be an estimated $10,204 per pupil the first fiscal year, followed by $10,290 per pupil the next fiscal year. Both figures are lower than the total public support appropriated in the current biennium — $10,227 per pupil for Fiscal Year 2019-2020 and $10,319 for Fiscal Year 2020-2021.

The apparent decrease muddied the water for several days with few clues clarifying the situation. But, late Thursday afternoon, Sen. Mo Denis (D-Las Vegas) said he had received information from the Legislative Counsel Bureau pointing to ending-fund balances as the culprit. In 2019, under the Nevada Plan, school district and charter schools’ ending-fund balances were calculated into the per-pupil estimate for total public support, Denis said. Moving forward with the Pupil-Centered Funding Plan, ending-fund balances are not calculated into total public support.

It’s a calculation deviation with a large price tag attached to it: For the current biennium, ending-fund balances totaling $283.5 million were included in total public support each year, Denis said. 

So despite similar language describing total public support in SB458 and SB555, the K-12 funding bill passed during the 2019 session, the two aren’t mirror images of each other. It’s unclear what the combined ending-fund balances would have totaled this year, but it likely would have been enough to significantly prop up the per-pupil estimates for total public support.

“This is the highest amount we've ever put in for schools,” Denis said.

Still, portions of the additional $500 million were used to backfill pandemic-related education budget cuts, making it more restoration-oriented than a pure funding infusion. Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson (D-Las Vegas) couched it as progress during a tough time. 

“The Strip was dark,” he said, referring to the pandemic shutdown of the state’s primary economic engine. “It’s impossible to suggest that we’re not going to have to make some difficult decisions. I think that, quite frankly, it is incredible that we came even close to pre-pandemic spending. And so it’s a good signal moving forward.”

The shift to the Pupil-Centered Funding Plan has also caused meteoric change to many categorical funding programs — such as Class Size Reduction, Read by Grade 3 and Zoom and Victory schools — which are being swept into the larger education funding pot and then redistributed to students. Therein lies another difficulty measuring the 2019 Legislature’s education appropriations with those happening right now in Carson City.

In theory, it will be easier to track moving forward — after this first biennium of fully transitioning from the old funding model to the new one. Then it will be time to cue the appropriate fruit comparisons, or at least that’s how lawmakers envision the process playing out. 

As it stands now, Carlton said comparisons between the upcoming biennium and previous one are “like grapes to watermelon.”

State Superintendent Jhone Ebert pointed to the Commission on School Funding as proof of the complexity of moving away from one finance model and implementing a new one. The advisory body met 22 times during the interim and issued a series of recommendations for how to transition. Still, there’s no crosswalk, so to speak, between the two models.

“It’s natural to ask for a crosswalk — how do you get from where you’re at and to where you're going?” she said. “The fact of the matter is, that’s not how this was developed.”

But the mere perception of a funding dip has rankled education advocates. The Nevada State Education Association, which has routinely questioned moving to the new funding formula without a significant bump in revenue, has openly critiqued the proposed K-12 budget on social media and in legislative hearings.

NSEA has raised concerns about the so-called weights — extra money intended to support certain student groups — established in SB458. The weights — 0.24 for English learners, 0.03 for at-risk students and 0.12 for gifted and talented students — will serve as a multiplier to the statewide base per-pupil funding. The result appears to be approximately an extra $1,648 for English learners, $209 for at-risk students and $837 for gifted and talented students.

NSEA leaders called the at-risk weight “anemic” and incapable of covering the expense of services meant to support low-income students.

Educate Nevada Now, an equity-focused organization, issued a statement Thursday lamenting the lack of financial clarity surrounding SB458 when it was unanimously passed in a joint subcommittee last week.

“We are glad that lawmakers could restore those funds, especially after such trying economic challenges, but we need to be clear about what these dollars mean and manage people’s expectations,” Amanda Morgan, ENN’s executive director, wrote in a statement. “This does help put us near where we were in 2019, but it does not mean students will see smaller class sizes or that schools will see more resources or supports.”

The ending-fund balance rationale posed by Denis didn’t dissipate skepticism among NSEA and Educate Nevada Now officials who want lawmakers to produce documents showing the money transactions.

“This whole thing doesn’t engender a lot of confidence in the new formula,” said Chris Daly, an NSEA lobbyist.

Lawmakers, however, argue that schools will see more resources courtesy of the massive wave of federal coronavirus relief funds. The three rounds of federal funding stand to bring Nevada school districts roughly $1.5 billion. The Clark County School District alone expects to receive more than $777 million through the American Rescue Plan Act, which is the third round of federal funding.

School districts are developing plans for how to use the federal funds, especially in terms of mitigating academic challenges created by the pandemic. The caveat, of course, is that the federal windfall is not recurring. The funds must be used within specific timeframes.

“I would count on the educational experience being better for our children,” Ebert said, referring to the effect of the federal funding.

But Michelle Booth, communications director for Educate Nevada Now, cautioned against an overreliance on the pandemic-related federal funding.

“Federal funds are great,” she said. “They’re helpful, but everybody knows that unless we do anything different, unless we have revenue, we’re going to have a fiscal cliff after that.”

Another unknown with five days remaining in the legislative session is whether lawmakers will pass any measures boosting mining taxes. If that were to occur, Denis said that money could be directed into the Pupil-Centered Funding Plan. 

Frierson on Wednesday expressed optimism there would be movement on the mining front but didn’t divulge details. Republicans, who will be key to getting a deal through, said they haven't seen concrete language on what a compromise tax deal with mining would look like and can't commit until they do, but have heard it’s in the ballpark of $70 to $80 million a year.

"I expect for there to be a policy passed dealing with revenue from mining, whether it's a resolution on the ballot or a deal,” Frierson told The Nevada Independent. “I expect to do something."

This story was updated at 8:33 p.m. on May 27, 2021, to include additional comments from Nevada State Education Association and Educate Nevada Now officials.

Lawmakers approve adding more than half a billion dollars to public education to implement new K-12 funding formula

State lawmakers are adding more than a half a billion dollars in education funding to help stand up the new K-12 funding formula over the next two years, marking one of the largest legislative investments in school funding without a tax increase in state history.

Legislators in a joint budget committee on Wednesday unanimously approved allocating $275 million in the 2022 fiscal year and $227 million in 2023 fiscal year to boost base funding in the state’s new “Pupil-Centered Funding Plan,” the long anticipated upgrade of the state’s decades-old public school funding formula set to go into effect this summer.

Lawmakers have spent recent weeks working to close K-12 budgets and complete the complex implementation and transition to the new funding formula, including meeting late Tuesday to approve appropriating $67.2 million to hold rural school districts harmless moving into the new funding formula.

But the meeting Wednesday morning was the first time that education advocates and the public got an answer to the question of how much lawmakers would be willing to spend to stand up the new formula — more than $502 million.

“I'm going to say it: I've been waiting a damn long time to put this amount of money into education,” Assembly Ways and Means Chair Maggie Carlton (D-Las Vegas) said.

Sen. Chris Brooks, who co-chairs the committee, said a lot of work happened overnight to get the additional funding and numbers squared away. The financial flexibility to move forward on enhanced funding was undoubtedly also boosted by the better-than-expected taxation revenue projections approved earlier this month by the state’s Economic Forum — giving lawmakers a $586 million upward revision in projected tax revenue, much of which is now being allocated to the funding formula.

Though lawmakers are ending the 120-day legislative session with the financial wind at their backs — between the Economic Forum’s projections and the coming $2.9 billion from the federal American Rescue Plan — several noted that the actions taken on Wednesday will apply more pressure on future Legislatures to continue funding education at higher levels.

“It will certainly put some upward pressure, rather than downward pressure, on future sessions and future executives to continue funding education at an increased method, and I think that's the point,” Sen. Ben Kieckhefer (R-Reno) said. 

The average base per-pupil funding will be $9,096 in the 2022 fiscal year and $9,185 in the 2023 fiscal year. Those figures do not reflect other money that flows to students, including special education money that is outside the funding model.

Eight of the state’s 17 school districts, plus the Davidson Academy and all charter schools, will be transitioned to the new funding formula over the biennium, with nine mostly rural school districts remaining in a “hold harmless” budget status. Legislative fiscal staff said that the new K-12 funding scheme covers about 93.6 percent of public and charter students.

“I don't think we can express our appreciation more than we already have, but we are going to continue to try,” said Hawah Ahmad, a lobbyist for the Clark County Education Association. “And at the end of the day, we just thank you for supporting our educators and supporting our students to give them every opportunity to succeed.

Chris Daly with the Nevada State Education Association lauded the move but acknowledged the public pressure to continually move the needle on K-12 funding in the coming years. The Commission on School Funding — the advisory body ushering the new funding plan into existence — has said Nevada needs more than $2 billion over a decade to achieve the national average of per-pupil spending. The commission has recommended changes to property and sales taxes as a means to generating that significant amount of new revenue toward education.

“I just want to point out there is a collaborative, sometimes contentious but ultimately necessary process between inside the halls and corridors of power and outside the halls and corridors of power,” he said. “People raised their voice to ask those who are elected to address their concerns and remedy their issues.”

Without naming names, several legislators offered thinly veiled responses to pressure by education advocates to increase education spending through raising taxes — Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson (D-Las Vegas) said that lawmakers last session faced 119 days of criticism before moving to substantially boost per-pupil funding, and that the “historic support for public education… doesn't happen on the sidewalks and also doesn't happen on social media.”

Carlton, who is serving her final term in the Legislature, said she anticipated additional criticism of the Legislature to come over the final two weeks of session but stressed that putting a substantial amount of money into base education funding would have a profound effect on public school teachers and students.

“No matter what we do, it's not going to be good enough for somebody,” she said. “They're going to criticize us for not solving this problem or that problem or another problem. But the fact of the matter is that we are adding a half a billion dollars to education, and we're putting most of it into the base, which will help every single student and every single teacher succeed.”

What it means

It wasn’t immediately clear how much the new infusion of funds would raise the amount of money Nevada spends overall on education per student. Teacher union activists have worn buttons around the Legislature with the number “48,” referring to how the state’s approximately $9,400 in spending per pupil per year ranks 48th in the nation.

“I am confident it is certainly higher in both regards — both the state money that's going into education per pupil as well as the overall investment in education from the state outside of the funding formula,” Frierson said. “I'm confident it’s certainly more than we did in 2019, which was a record increase ... So we're continuing to make progress towards funding, prioritizing public education and we'll continue to do so.”

Because the additional funds are layered on top of a budget that already had deep cuts to class size reduction, the “Read by Grade 3” program and other initiatives, some of the money is simply digging the state out of a hole.

Kieckhefer acknowledged “it's not going to make a huge dent” in how the state ranks nationally, but also said that he thinks the metric is “a really blunt instrument to try and figure out how our education system is functioning.”

“I've always thought that we did ourselves a disservice by saying we're 48 or whatever we are in education, because I've got four kids in the public school system and I know that there's really good teaching going on,” he said. “Is this just massive growth in our education spending? No, it's not. But it is a commitment to seeing through the promise we made last session by the implementation of the Pupil-Centered Funding Plan. And it's ensuring that the majority of kids in the state … are being funded based on some reflection of their need. And I think that's important.”

Beyond the education add-backs on Wednesday, the state has to account for a hit of about $200 million because the Supreme Court ruled a payroll tax increase was unconstitutional, and has already increased Medicaid general fund spending about $110 million above the governor’s recommendation. That consumes much of the $910 million in unexpected money the state has to work with because revenue forecasts were rosier than originally planned.

That could mean the budget does not have a 5 percent cushion in the “ending fund balance,” which is a target for lawmakers. Kieckhefer said he expects the Legislature will want to plug COVID-19 relief dollars from the American Rescue Plan to further shore up the budget.

Carlton said that the state isn’t yet done with the budget.

“We're just working with general fund right now because we don't have that money yet,” Carlton said of the federal aid. “Now once we get a very solid feel for what that is, then we can go ahead and add it in and then we can make some other decisions."

She said she’s waiting for fiscal analyst Russell Guindon to get comfortable with guidance from federal officials on precisely how the money can be used. 

“We're comfortable with getting the money but is the guidance clear enough that we don't put ourselves in harm's way and we end up with a clawback?” Carlton said.

But it appears the amount of base per-pupil funding finalized on Wednesday will stand.

“I think we are where we need to be with the base. You have to remember it's going to grow over time. The whole goal was to give it a really good sound footing, so that it can grow over time,” Carlton said. “If you start too high … you'll have expectations that you may not be able to meet. This base, we believe, is just at the right level to allow the model to stand up and run on its own ... and then the legislators that come back in [2023] will be able to evaluate it.”

Updated at 8:03 p.m. on May 19, 2021 to add further comments from legislators.

Lawmakers finalize budgets, but expect restoring many of their cuts

After months of review, legislative money committees closed their final budgets on Friday with many of the austerity measures in the governor’s budget, but are teeing up for a more pleasant round of add-backs to distribute hundreds of millions of dollars from revenue streams expected to over-perform earlier projections.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chris Brooks (D-Las Vegas) said the outcome of a Saturday budget hearing would depend on what numbers staff arrive at after adding up all the actions taken by the Legislature. But even as lawmakers have voted to approve painful cuts, they have hinted that they’re putting sticky notes on certain accounts with the intention of filling them back up. 

“It's a moving target, until the very end,” Brooks said. “But to the extent there's money available, we're going to try to add it back to everything that's been cut.”

He said K-12 education — specifically boosting a base per-pupil figure “as high as we possibly can” — is a priority. That number will be a key starting point as the state moves to a new “Pupil-Centered Funding Plan,” and future adjustments and weights will be calculated as multipliers of that figure.

Earlier in the week, lawmakers swept funding from a long list of targeted, “categorical” accounts into a larger pot of funding to be redistributed through the new funding. But some of those underlying accounts, such as one supporting class size reduction, were cut by tens of millions of dollars before being swept, and lawmakers and advocates gave dire warnings about the consequences of letting that decision stand.

“The proposed $156 million cut the class size reduction over the next biennium would mean a loss of about 1,000 teachers across the state, meaning even more students packed into Nevada classrooms,” said Chris Daly of the Nevada State Education Association teacher’s union. “This is not acceptable.”

Lawmakers already voted this week to undo one of the most loathed cuts during the pandemic — cuts in reimbursement rates for Medicaid providers — but budget committees made less-dramatic moves in recent days to shore up the budget in accordance with constitutional deadlines. Below are some highlights from budget closings on Thursday and Friday.

Medicaid and health care

Full budget committees on Friday approved moving forward with recommendations made earlier this week to roll back Medicaid rate decreases approved by lawmakers during a budget-slashing 2020 special session and a host of other add-backs to state health care spending.

Committee members approved recommendations of rolling back a 6 percent Medicaid rate decrease approved last year, as well as to finally enact a 2.5 percent increase in the acute care hospital rate starting in July. The move restores about $300 million in Medicaid funding, including about $110 million from state dollars.

Lawmakers also approved several other adjustments to the Medicaid budget, including significant caseload adjustments estimated to cost the state roughly $320 million in general fund dollars. The governor’s recommended budget had counted on a caseload of about 770,000 in each year of the biennium, now expected to be about 830,000 in fiscal year 2022 and 820,000 in fiscal year 2023.

Assemblywoman Daniele Monroe-Moreno (D-Las Vegas), who chaired a budget subcommittee, said Friday that her first few meetings “weren’t cheerful,” but that the state’s recent upward revision in projected tax revenue gave lawmakers the flexibility to reverse many of the proposed cuts.

“We're leaving knowing that we've made some changes now with this budget if we close it as it is, knowing we're making a direct positive impact on so many lives,” she said.

Assembly Ways and Means committee Chair Maggie Carlton (D-Las Vegas) said Friday was “one of the good days in the Legislature at this moment in time,” saying that restoring the cuts helped lawmakers avoid tough decisions about which budgets and services to cut.

“The conversations on that were just heart wrenching,” she said. “We're getting back to square one, we still need to build a couple more rungs to the ladder to get out of the hole. We're not out of the hole yet, but at least we're getting close, especially to these vulnerable populations.” 

Corrections

Prison populations have fallen well below projected levels during the pandemic, so lawmakers approved funding for a reduced number of inmates. In the fiscal year that begins in July, lawmakers now expect there will be an average of 11,043 inmates in the system based on projections released in March; that’s about 1,300 people lower than an October 2020 projection of 12,345 inmates.

Another significant change in the last few months has been a delay in an effort to reclassify the  Ely State Prison as a medium security facility, down from its current status as a maximum security facility. The rural prison has long had troubles with staffing, and the status adjustment was aimed at reducing the number of correctional officers needed to supervise the inmates.

The Governor’s Finance Office says it is requesting the Nevada Department of Corrections to conduct an internal study and gather evidence that reclassifying Ely State Prison — and also raising the classification of medium-security High Desert State Prison — is appropriate for the 2023-2025 biennium.

Aging and disability

Lawmakers opted to restore some of the Aging and Disability Services cuts that would hit some of the most vulnerable Nevadans.

The governor’s budget had recommended cutting the rate paid to providers of early intervention services — which are targeted toward young children with disabilities — from $565 to $500 per month. The reduction would have saved $2.9 million over the biennium.

The full committees opted not to approve the recommendation, keeping the rate at $565 per month.

“I think we all share the same discomfort of the long-term impacts of not being able to intervene early that we know increase over time … and also the impact that has on need for state services down the road,” said Assemblywoman Jill Tolles (R-Reno).

They also opted to reject proposed cuts of six adult rights specialist positions from the long-term care ombudsman program, which was aimed at saving $1.1 million over the biennium. Sen. Julia Ratti (D-Sparks) noted that residents of nursing homes were among the hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, and the staff of the ombudsman’s office were the eyes and ears on the ground about conditions in long-term care facilities.

“It's not quality assurance, it's not licensing, it's very different,” Ratti said. “It's a place where families can go to share their concerns, and I just have significant concerns about not having that resource in place as we are navigating the rest of this pandemic.”

State parks

Lawmakers approved a fee increase for state parks passes to shift costs from the general fund to visitors, saving the state $2 million over the biennium.

Instead of $75, the cost for a day-use annual pass would be $100. There would also be a new $5 out-of-state fee.

Those changes were already imposed effective in April through temporary regulations, with a process set to begin in May to make the regulations permanent by November.

Parks officials do not anticipate that the changes will deter tourists. They said that camping increased 41.2 percent and boating increased by 10.4 percent in 2020 compared to 2019, and noted that other neighboring states charge out-of-state fees.

Budget differences

Lawmakers on budget committees also used Friday’s meeting to hash out budget closing differences — situations that occur when the Assembly and Senate differ on budget-related decisions.

This session, lawmakers only faced two relatively minor closing issues — one related to a travel and meeting budget for the Commission on School Funding, and one related to funding for the Knowledge account — the grant program for higher education facilities aimed at spurring the commercialization of research.

There were no knock-down, drag-out fights over either of the two items — lawmakers opted to go with the Assembly recommendation on the Commission on School Funding budget (dollars for two-day meetings every other month, as opposed to every month) and the Senate recommendation for the Knowledge Account — full funding of $5 million over the two years of the budget cycle.

Budget committee chairs and legislative leaders said they were generally pleased that despite the often intense budget review process, both houses made it to this point with only a handful of differences.

“We've had hundreds of budget accounts, countless hours of meetings, and between both houses, and all these members, and two different political parties, and it boils down to these two very simple closing differences,” Brooks said. “This is to me just an indication of how much we have in common, as opposed to what we differ on.”

Behind the Bar: Read by 3 cuts, builders back Innovation Zones, inside the home builders ad campaign, and a watered down first responders bill

Behind the Bar is The Nevada Independent’s newsletter devoted to comprehensive and accessible coverage of the 2021 Legislature. 

In this edition: Is this the session lawmakers find a funding solution for the Millennium Scholarship? (No). Plus, it’s another deadline day, the future of Read by 3, building trades back Innovation Zones, major changes to a mental health hotline bill for first responders and details on an affordable housing campaign backed by the home builders.

Check this link to manage your newsletter subscriptions. This newsletter is published on Mondays and Thursdays.

I want to hear from you! Questions, comments, observations, jokes, what you think we should be covering or paying attention to. Email me at rsnyder@thenvindy.com.


Near the end of his 1999 State of the State address, Gov. Kenny Guinn shared a major announcement: His administration would use its sizable share of the national tobacco settlement to fund a universal scholarship program for graduating high school seniors.

That program — dubbed the Millennium Scholarship — was promoted as a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to provide Nevada’s children with the means to advance their education in a way never thought possible.”

“Using 50 percent of the settlement money to fund these scholarships, and reverting the unused portion of the initial years to an endowment fund, will enable us to fund these scholarships in perpetuity,” the governor said at the time. “Without an increase in taxes.”

More than two decades later, the program has become an unabashed success, helping more than 143,000 Nevada students pay for college over its 21-year-existence.

But continued success of the program (as well as Nevada’s population growth over the last two decades) has left the state in an uncomfortable position — the program has grown so large that it now takes general fund (i.e. tax) dollars to continue funding it.

Former Gov. Brian Sandoval started allocating general funds to the program in 2013, and every session since then has seen the state chip in more general fund revenues to help keep the scholarship program afloat. Gov. Steve Sisolak’s 2021-23 budget calls for a hefty $44 million one-shot appropriation for the scholarship program.

Discussion around finding a more permanent and reliable funding source for the scholarship program isn’t new — it came up in 2015, 2017, 2018 and 2019.

Now, in 2021, lawmakers are prepared to finally figure out the funding solution for the scholarship program. The only problem is that solution will have to come next session, in 2023, and only maybe.

Any progress on a permanent Millennium Scholarship funding solution will have to come from SB128, a bill sponsored by Sen. Mo Denis (D-Las Vegas) that would create an interim study focused on ways to improve the scholarship program (as well as the Promise Scholarship and Silver State Opportunity Grant).

“At some point, we have to find a permanent solution for funding these scholarships, but before we can have that discussion, we need to make sure that they're being run as efficiently and that they're accomplishing what they need to,” Denis said during the Thursday hearing.

The study will focus on both student outcomes of the scholarship programs, as well as a “comprehensive evaluation of the short-term and long-term financial viability” of the programs, as well as estimated cost of administering them in the future. It’ll be overseen led by state Treasurer Zach Conine’s office and funded out of the state college savings endowment account. 

Conine has been a vocal proponent of finding a permanent funding source for the program, and made what I think is a really good point back when I interviewed him on this topic two years ago — eventually, the size of the scholarship program is going to grow so large that it’ll be nigh impossible to avoid cutting it during any sort of budget downturn.

“Any solution that we can come up with that doesn't require general fund appropriations every year stops the Millennium Scholarship from having this possibility of being a random casualty of the budget process,” he said at the time.

— Riley Snyder


Read by Grade 3 is being downsized and diluted. A new bill would take us back to 2015

There’s no shortage of bad headlines about Nevada students’ academic performance, but reading has been a success story: fourth graders in the Silver State performed on par with their national peers in 2019 after being a year behind them in 2009, and their scores are among the fastest increasing in the country.

Many credit Read by Grade 3, an initiative authorized by the Legislature in 2015 that requires students to read at grade level by third grade, calls on schools to designate a literacy specialist to coordinate reading supports and provides about $62 million a biennium to make it all happen.

But funding was zeroed out during the summer special session, and Gov. Steve Sisolak’s recommended budget restores less than half of it. Because of a transition to a new funding formula, the money will also be sent to a large pot and redistributed to all students, rather than being earmarked for literacy in the lower grades. 

The arrangement is drawing criticism from several corners, including Republican senators Heidi Gansert and Ben Kieckhefer, who introduced a bill last week, SB273, calling for keeping Read by Grade 3 money in a separate account and requiring specific accountability for it. Gansert said she’s not necessarily opposed to the new funding formula overall, but is concerned about diluting the funding toward literacy and not establishing a special “weight” of funding for children who can’t read.

“This program is also focused on very young students versus the entire spectrum of age groups that are in K through 12,” she said in an interview. “Literacy is essential.”

The Nevada State Education Association teachers union argued that an unintended consequence of following through with the funding formula transition during a recession could erase progress Nevada has made since 2015 through “strategic investments” in student mental health, Zoom and Victory schools.

“The most important line of accountability between districts and the state is blurred,” said NSEA lobbyist Chris Daly. “While requirements may continue in statute, the impetus for districts to deliver on these legislative priorities is watered down.”

Federal funding might help bail to blunt the pain. Nevada schools are receiving $477 million from the late-December stimulus bill. 

But officials with the Nevada Department of Education weren’t able to answer any specifics during a Friday budget hearing about where those dollars, which were formally accepted by lawmakers in February, would be going.

“It will take us some time to go back and review each sub grant to identify specifically how each school district has chosen to invest those dollars, but that we'd be happy to provide that information to your staff,” said state Deputy Superintendent Heidi Haartz.

We’ve asked for them to copy us when they have an answer.

— Michelle Rindels


More support builds for Innovation Zones

Building and construction unions across the state are backing Blockchains LLC’s proposal to build a new city outside of Reno and accompanying legislation that would allow developers with large land holdings to establish “Innovation Zones,” autonomous local governments. 

On Thursday, two groups representing building unions in Southern and Northern Nevada put their weight behind the proposal, backed by Gov. Steve Sisolak, who pitched the “Innovation Zone” concept as a key economic development driver for the state’s post-pandemic recovery.

Economic impact studies, cited by Blockchains and the governor’s office, claim the company’s proposal to build a technology park and a new city of about 36,000 residents could create, over time, about 123,000 direct, indirect and induced jobs. An economic analysis also said the plan could generate a total economic impact of $16.4 billion.

Rob Benner, secretary treasurer of the Building and Construction Trades Council of Northern Nevada said in a press release Thursday that “Nevada Innovation Zones, and Blockchains' Smart City proposal specifically, have incredible potential to help Nevada thrive again.”

The trades council’s membership includes local unions that represent workers across the region. The Southern Nevada Building & Construction Trades Council also backed the plan.

The Southern Nevada Building & Construction Trades Council contributed a total of $27,250 to sitting Democratic lawmakers in 2020, according to an analysis by The Nevada Independent. The Building and Trades Council of Northern Nevada contributed $2,500 to Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro. 

Daniel Rothberg


Mental health support for first responders bill severely watered down

A bill that would have established a dedicated commission and hotline focused on mental health issues for emergency responders has been overhauled to severely limit the bill’s impact, after the Division of Public and Behavioral Health estimated the financial impact to be more than $1 million per budget cycle.

With a conceptual amendment from the bill’s sponsor, Assemblywoman Lesley Cohen (D-Henderson), AB96 would no longer require the establishment of a hotline, and instead would just authorize government agencies that license and regulate first responders (including firefighters, police officers and emergency medical service providers) to contract a non-profit organization to carry out peer support counseling for those first responders.

“I'm just looking at the amendment, right. We're doing just a gut and replace,” Assemblywoman Teresa Benitez-Thompson (D-Reno) said during the bill’s first hearing on Wednesday. “It feels local governments have established relationships… This is definitely meant to kind of be complementary to anything that might be happening within a local entity already.”

With the amendment, the bill would only require the Division of Public and Behavioral Health to maintain a website with information for first responders about available peer support services. That would simply build off of what is already available to first responders in the state through the Nevada Peer Support Network — which offers peer support, mental health resources and toolkits throughout the state.

Cohen acknowledged that the slimmed down version of the bill is the result of a lack of funding. But it would still provide more structure to existing peer support provided to first responders in Nevada, and, as Cohen put it, “basically promote peer support for first responders.”

And though the impact of the bill is limited, those in the meeting discussed an important need to provide support for first responders.

“We have a lot of national data out there that tells us that our first responders are in crisis,” Benitez-Thompson said.

From June through February, a warmline for health care workers that is run by the UNLV School of Medicine received 30 calls. And calls for the Nevada suicide prevention Lifeline increased from 19,000 in 2019 to 21,000 in 2020.

— Sean Golonka


Home builders behind Facebook ads for affordable housing, praise Sisolak

With Nevada lawmakers debating dozens of proposals aimed at addressing the state’s affordable housing crisis, an advocacy group backed by the Nevada Home Builders Association has started running a social media campaign urging the governor and Legislature to “Do no harm.”

Nevada Housing Now, a self-described "grassroots arm of the Nevada Home Builders Association," has in recent weeks launched a digital ad campaign highlighting articles discussing Nevada's record-high rent prices, statistics characterizing the affordable housing crisis and messaging targeted at lawmakers not to make housing more expensive.

"Nevada Housing Now is a key stakeholder that helps promote legislation like SB 257, a measure that streamlines insurance requirements for multifamily for purchase developments," the group wrote in an emailed statement to The Nevada Independent. "We want to work with all advocates and stakeholders to solve Nevada's affordability crisis and assure the problem does not get even worse."

According to Facebook’s ad library, the group has spent more than $450 on the social media platform over the last week, and nearly $40,000 since the page was launched in 2019.

Charges also show that the Nevada Home Builders Association spent less than $100 on advertisements related to the Nevada Housing Now page, but Nevada Housing Now would not provide additional details on its connection with the Nevada Home Builders Association or further comment on its plans for the legislative cycle.

Nevada Housing Now isn’t registered as a political action committee with the secretary of state’s office. The group’s website describes the organization as a “coalition of more than 7,000 homeowners, renters, and homebuilding professionals and organizations including the Nevada Home Builders Association.”

The majority of the group’s advertisements feature statements thanking Gov. Steve Sisolak for protecting housing affordability during the pandemic.

"NHN applauds the efforts of Governor Steve Sisolak during the pandemic to not only keeping the employees in the homebuilding industry working, but also adding nearly 10,000 new homes to a shrinking supply of shelter," the group wrote.

Real estate companies, developers and PACs funded by those groups contributed more than $1.3 million to lawmakers' campaigns with funds from the Nevada Home Builders Association PAC making up 6 percent or $79,500 of that overall total and establishing it as the fourth-largest donor out of those groups for the cycle.

The Nevada Home Builders Association could not be reached for comment.

— Tabitha Mueller


Upcoming bills of note

Lawmakers heading into the eighth week of session have stacked their schedule with a bevy of high-profile measures, ranging from licensing cannabis-friendly events, increasing protections for tenants, upping the penalties for public record violations and making it easier for women to obtain birth control medication.

Below, we’ve listed the hearing times and short descriptions for those high-profile measures. They’re accurate as of Friday afternoon, but are subject to change at any time (given that the Legislature is exempted from Open Meeting Law). For links and times to watch committee meetings, check out the Legislature’s website.

Here’s what to watch this week in the Legislature:

Monday, 8 a.m. - The Senate Commerce and Labor committee will hold a hearing on SB209, a bill from Sen. Fabian Doñate that expands the types of activities and reasons for an employee to request paid time off. It’d also require the Legislative Committee on Health Care to conduct a study regarding the long-term health implications of COVID on casino and frontline workers.

Monday, 9 a.m. - Members of the Assembly Government Affairs committee will hear AB187, which formally designates the month of September as “Ovarian and Prostate Cancer Prevention and Awareness Month” in Nevada. Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson — who underwent treatment for prostate cancer complications last week — will present the bill.

Monday, 3:30 p.m. - Legislators in the Senate Growth and Infrastructure will hear details of SB232, which would generally require that any car traveling on a two-lane highway in the state has to keep its headlights on, regardless of the time of day.

Tuesday, 9 a.m. - Members of the Assembly Government Affairs committee will hold a hearing on AB276, a bill by Assemblyman Andy Matthews (R-Las Vegas) that increases the size of court penalties in any lawsuit brought about over a delay or denial of public record requests.

Tuesday, 1 p.m. - The Senate Judiciary committee will hear details of SB223, which would prohibit those in the legal system from denying someone’s ability to serve as a juror on the basis of their race, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, national origin, age or physical disability.

Tuesday, 4 p.m. - Members of the Assembly Revenue committee will hold a hearing on AB322, which provides a licensing and regulatory structure for events where the sale and consumption of cannabis and cannabis products is allowed.

Wednesday, 8 a.m. - The Senate Commerce and Labor committee will hear details of SB190, a bill by Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro that would create a standing order for birth control medication from the state’s chief medical officer — allowing women to get birth control without a prescription from their doctor, and still be covered by insurance.

Wednesday, 1 p.m. - Expect fireworks during the Senate Judiciary hearing on SB218, a bill by Sen. Julia Ratti (D-Sparks) that would make several tenant-friendly changes to state law. Those changes include a clearer definition of a “security deposit,” give tenants a chance to address any issues with a dwelling that could affect the security deposit before the end of a rental agreement, exclude “normal wear” from costs that can be taken from a security deposit, require a grace period on late payment of rent, prohibit application fees for prospective tenants, and also prohibit any fee charged to a tenant not explicitly authorized in state law. 

An empty hall reflected on photos of the Nevada's Senate majority leaders inside the Legislature on Monday, March 15, 2021 in Carson City. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

What we’re reading

Lawmakers say they want to stop jailing people for traffic offenses — a practice one critic says is out of a Charles Dickens novel — but the bill faces a wall of local government opposition,  Michelle Rindels reports

Riley Snyder gets his hands on the official complaint against former lawmaker Alexander Assefa.

A citizen review board that’s supposed to monitor police misconduct rarely contradicts the police, the Review-Journal’s Art Kane finds. Martha Menendez, an Indy columnist and former member, called it “chummy” with the cops.

Things are getting increasingly serious with Republican former Assemblyman Brent Jones’ company Real Water — one consumer needed a liver transplant, and another woman blames the beverage for her sister’s liver failure death, the Review-Journal’s David Ferrara reports.

After the tragic deaths of five cyclists in December, Sen. Joe Hardy wants to bar cyclists from roads with speed limits of 65 mph or higher, but the cycling community is forcefully opposed. Via the Sun’s Ricardo Torres-Cortez.

The 90s-era policy of automatically referring youths accused of certain felonies to the adult system is one throwback that lawmakers want to get rid of this session (Nevada Current)

Do HOA foreclosures feed into systemic racism? Sen. Pat Spearman says yes (Nevada Current)

Vegas PBS’ Nevada Week digs into a Sen. Ben Kieckhefer-endorsed effort to make the state the Esports capital of the world.

UPCOMING DEADLINES

Remaining Bill Introductions Deadline: 0 (Monday, March 22, 2021)

First Committee Passage: 18 (Friday, April 9, 2021)

Days Until Sine Die: 70 (May 31, 2021)

Special session draws to a close as lawmakers pass COVID liability bill exempting hospitals, schools

Lawmakers ended the second special session of the summer shortly after midnight on Wednesday after passing a heavily lobbied bill that shields many businesses from COVID-19-related lawsuits but ultimately exempted school districts, hospitals and other health care facilities from receiving the additional protections.

Members of the Assembly, after a five-hour hearing Wednesday night, voted 31-10 to grant final approval to SB4, the last major piece of legislation to advance in the special session. It mandates certain health and safety protections for hospitality workers, in addition to granting broad liability protections to nearly all businesses, governmental bodies and nonprofit groups in the state so long as they follow required local, state and federal health protocols. 

Several lawmakers described the vote as one of the most difficult of their legislative career, saying it was born of backroom deals and seemed to arbitrarily cut out important segments of the workforce. But supporters said they ultimately settled on the bill out of recognition that gaming is the lifeblood of the Nevada economy.

"Ultimately it comes down to one thing: I don't want to be back here in a few months trying to figure out where to find money on the backs of the most vulnerable among us to fill another $1.3 billion budget hole,” said Democratic Assemblywoman Shannon Bilbray-Axelrod. “We talk all the time about how we need to diversify our economy but the fact remains we are still a one trick pony — gaming and tourism fuel our economy.”

Four Democrats — Selena Torres, Edgar Flores, Richard Carrillo, and Brittney Miller — and six Republicans — John Ellison, Greg Hafen, Alexis Hansen, Al Kramer, Robin Titus and Chris Edwards — opposed the bill, which was approved by the Senate on a 16-5 vote earlier in the day.

In effect, the bill means that most regular businesses will be relatively protected from lawsuits if a customer contracts COVID-19 on the premises, so long as the company is following local, state and federal health mandates, such as ensuring that patrons are wearing masks. Customers will still be able to sue, but they’ll have to meet a much higher threshold for a court to allow their case to move forward.

The legislation also establishes protections for casino industry workers and outlines enhanced cleaning policies that large casino companies must follow, provisions the politically powerful Culinary Union has been long pushing for. Adolfo Fernandez, a Caesars Palace utility porter and Culinary Union member, died after contracting the virus in June, and his daughter, Irma, tearfully testified that she was carrying on a mantle of worker protection at his direction.

The two proposals were married together as SB4 in order to ensure that businesses — including gaming companies — and casino workers alike received the protections they wanted. 

However, while that mechanism ensured buy-in from some of the most politically powerful interests in the state, others were excluded from the process of drafting the bill. Hospitals and other health care facilities bemoaned their exclusion from the bill, schools argued against a last-minute amendment excluding them from liability protections and local health districts questioned why they weren’t consulted over new provisions that give them an enhanced oversight role over hotels.

“I share, like many of my colleagues, sentiments that this bill picks winners and losers and gives preferences to some special interest groups,” said Assembly Minority Leader Robin Titus. “I am very disappointed and hope that future legislatures will be able to right the wrongs that are being done today.”

Hospitals protest exclusion

During a lengthy public comment period, hospitals and health care workers warned that excluding health care facilities from liability protections would lead to them having to exclude vendors and visitors to hospitals, as well as think twice about transferring patients to lower-level facilities and threaten their ability to keep beds open during a pandemic.

“If we are following clear rules from the government, and in our case CDC guidelines, we should not be excluded,” said Bill Welch, CEO of the Nevada Hospital Association. “By excluding medical facilities from this bill, access to patient care will be impacted.”

Representatives of Gov. Steve Sisolak’s office tried to point to an emergency directive from April extending additional immunities from liability to providers of medical care engaged in the state’s COVID-19 response as justification for why hospitals and other health care facilities were excluded from the bill’s liability protections. 

However, Legislative Counsel Bureau General Counsel Kevin Powers told lawmakers Wednesday night that whether those additional immunities extend to health care facilities — not just their workers — is an “open question.”

“We cannot say that [the directive] provides medical facilities with the same immunity that their workers enjoy under [state law],” Powers said.

It also remained unclear as of Wednesday night who was responsible for health care facilities being excluded from the bill’s liability protections. During a hearing on the bill in the Senate early Tuesday morning, Brin Gibson, Sisolak’s interim general counsel, said the legislation was a byproduct of “some of the most important members of Nevada’s economy,” a point that several Assembly members asked about during the hearing on the bill.

Pressed during Wednesday’s hearing on who those “important members” were, Gibson demurred.

“There were myriad interests that were involved in the negotiation of this bill, from the travel and tourism industry, primarily, but there were a number of different interests,” Gibson said. “I don’t have a list.”

Sisolak’s staff, on Wednesday, acknowledged that the move was a policy decision from the governor’s office but offered no explanation as to why exactly hospitals had been excluded, other than that they believed that the facilities have enough existing protections.

At another point, the governor’s office suggested that putting in place liability protections would have been too difficult.

“This bill is around health and safety for public accommodations and also for businesses,” said Francisco Morales, a governor’s office staffer who presented the bill alongside Gibson. "To try and tackle liability protections for hospitals and medical providers ... would’ve been extremely complex, and I just want to go back and say that there are already robust protections under (state law).”

School district exemption

An amendment introduced early Wednesday carved out K-12 school districts, including charter schools, from the enhanced liability protections in the bill — a concession celebrated by two of the state’s largest teacher unions, the Nevada State Education Association (NSEA) and Clark County Education Association. 

Democratic lawmakers initially pitched the amendment as a way to ensure school districts would be more cautious about sending teachers back to school without high health and safety standards in place. Democratic Sen. Julia Ratti said it would “put our schools in the position of having to think just a little bit harder about the safety standards that they're providing.”

Legislative legal staff told lawmakers that schools would still be able to use normal litigation immunity offered under existing law, but several school districts said the lack of enhanced liability standards would open them up to liability and that they should be treated the same as other governmental entities.

“If employees and students choose not to follow health and safety standards outside of school, the district shouldn’t be at fault for their actions,” Nevada Association of School Boards President Bridget Peterson said in written testimony. “The potential lawsuits will be costly and put school districts in a financial risk at a time where our budgets are being reduced and expenses are increasing.”

Churchill County School District Superintendent Summer Stephens said districts were working hard to ensure that they could address health and safety issues as they arose and that the enhanced liability protections would put them in a better position in spite of existing liability protections written into law.

“Adding schools back into the bill does not mean schools will not protect their staff members,” she said.

In the end, NSEA lobbyist Chris Daly testified against the bill, saying that it wanted to show solidarity with workers who did not benefit from the measure.

"An injury to one is an injury to all,” he said.

Health districts excluded from drafting

The heads of Nevada’s two urban health districts said on Wednesday that they were not consulted as the legislation was being drafted, despite the fact that it newly tasks them with regular inspections of hotels to ensure compliance with COVID-19-related protocols and establishes a new enforcement role.

“It’s just another burden being placed upon the health district while we’re already overextended in our response to COVID-19,” Washoe County District Health Officer Kevin Dick said.

The health districts have also raised concerns that, while the bill appropriates additional funding to them, it only makes that funding available through the end of the calendar year. SB4 appropriates $2 million to the Southern Nevada Health District and $500,000 to the Washoe County Health District.

Michelle White, chief of staff to Sisolak, said that the governor’s office understands the health districts’ concerns about the time frame of the funding but that they are “completely confident” that the health districts “understand the critical nature of this work to protect Nevada’s employees and our economy.” She added that health districts already have existing authority and expertise with public accommodations, such as hotels, and so they seemed like an “obvious choice” to take on the new role.

“We are incredibly sympathetic with the health districts that they can do this as an expansion,” White said. “We will be a very strong partner with those health districts as we have been and can’t be more appreciative of the work and partnership that they’ve had thus far with us.”

Contentious COVID business liability, worker protection bill advances in Senate in early morning vote

The Legislature on Sunday, Aug. 2, 2020 during the third day of the 32nd Special Session in Carson City.

Members of the Senate preliminarily approved a long-awaited proposal to protect businesses from liability in the event that a customer contracts COVID-19 after a four hour-long hearing Monday evening that stretched past midnight.

The bill, which is likely to be the last piece of legislation introduced during the special session, cleared the Senate Committee of the Whole early Tuesday morning, 18-3, with Republican Sens. Ira Hansen, Joe Hardy and Pete Goicoechea in opposition. The legislation, SB4, has dominated the behind-the-scenes conversations during the session and is the culmination of a deal between some of the state’s most powerful political interests, including casinos, business groups and the Culinary Union.

But the bill also attracted the ire of other powerful interests in the state, including trial attorneys and progressive groups, who generally bemoaned the bill’s liability protections; teacher unions, who wanted a set of worker protections in the bill afforded to hotel workers extended to educators; and hospitals, who felt they were unfairly excluded from the bill’s liability protections.

“My main concern is about all of the workers, and not just the Culinary,” said Sen. Marcia Washington. “What about the other essential workers and the school district and the hospitals, construction, etc.?”

In opening remarks, gubernatorial Chief of Staff Michelle White reiterated the dire economic situation facing the state amid decreased business demand among Nevada’s casino and tourism industry, saying the bill was a desire to strike a balance between protecting business from “those seeking to capitalize on our current situation” without granting total immunity from lawsuits related to spread of the disease.

“I want to be clear, the bill being presented tonight does not provide total immunity to all businesses, under all circumstances, far from it. These inevitable bad actors that have ignored and continue to ignore executive branch directives and published health and safety protocols will not be protected from liability for those failures,” White said. “Those bad actors will continue to face legal consequences.”

While there was general agreement among lawmakers on the general liability and worker protections, several senators raised concerns during a lengthy question and answer session about the decision to exclude hospitals and other health care facilities from the legislation. 

Brin Gibson, Gov. Steve Sisolak’s interim general counsel, said during the hearing that the legislation was the byproduct of conversations between “some of the most important members of Nevada’s economy” and suggested that the decision was theirs.

“They struck this language, and they decided that based on how the various weights and balances that are out there, that these elements should be included in here in this way, and what I would say is that based on that yield, this is where we ended up,” Gibson said. “There's potential that this deal falls apart if we start amending out certain provisions. They’re there for reasons that aren't— may not be obvious, some are messaging related, some are optical, some are substantive. There are various reasons why.”

But that answer didn’t satisfy all lawmakers. Hansen, one of the three “no” votes out of committee, suggested that health care facilities were being asked to be the “sacrificial lamb” so that “the other guys can get protection.”

“That is just unacceptable,” Hansen said. “We cannot have our entire medical community being subjected to lawsuits while we give exemptions.”

Cleaning standards and worker safety

The bill, which was released in full on Monday, covers three topics: creating an outline of enhanced cleaning policies for large casinos and hotels in Las Vegas and Reno; enhanced protections for workers at those casinos and hotels; and, most controversially, broad immunity from COVID-19 related litigation for businesses, government agencies including schools, and nonprofits, but not hospitals or health care facilities.

First, the legislation directs the director of the Department of Health and Human Services, Richard Whitley, to promulgate regulations on cleaning standards for casino resort or hotels, including regular cleaning of high-touch areas used by the public such as fixtures, door handles, countertops, keycards, elevator buttons and other objects.

The bill requires Whitley to adopt another set of regulations to limit transmission of COVID-19, including protocols on social distancing, access to hand cleaning, sinks and soap, hand sanitizer and personal protective equipment, such as gloves or masks, at no cost to the employee.

The bill mandates that local and state health officials regularly inspect resort hotels every two months and hotels with more than 200 rooms every three months for compliance with the health standards. It also authorizes them to administer fines of $500 for an initial violation and $1,000 for each subsequent violation.

It  also allocates $2 million to the Southern Nevada Health District and $500,000 to the Washoe County Health District to implement and enforce requirements in the bill.

The legislation also includes requirements that employees at casino hotels receive paid time off while awaiting COVID-19 test results if they are in close contact with a guest or other employee who tested positive for the virus. Any employee who tests positive will be allowed a minimum of 14 days off, including 10 paid days.

Those provisions were hard won by the politically powerful Culinary Union, which represents about 60,000 workers in Las Vegas and Reno. The union has been pushing for many of the same worker protections — including enhanced safety and cleaning standards, free COVID-19 testing and detailed processes for when a worker contracts the virus or is exposed to someone who has it — after Adolfo Fernandez, a Caesars Palace utility porter, died after contracting the virus in June.

In her testimony, Culinary Union Secretary-Treasurer Geoconda Arguello-Kline voiced the union’s support for the legislation.

“This Special Session is important for all workers and the hospitality industry,” she said in written testimony. “We hope today that we will ensure workers and their families are protected from the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace.”

Liability protections

But much of the attention on the bill has centered around the sections on liability protections for businesses, nonprofits and government agencies, with hospitals and other health care facilities excluded.

Essentially, the bill sets up a higher standard before a COVID-19-related personal injury or death lawsuit against a business or entity can be filed. It requires any claim to be pled with “particularly,” meaning the plaintiffs have to meet a higher standard of proof than normal before even filing the case.

The bill states that all entities covered under the bill — including businesses, certain nonprofits and government agencies — are immune from such litigation if they are in “substantial compliance with controlling health standards,” unless the plaintiffs can prove that the entity violated those standards with gross negligence, causing personal injury or death.

The legislation defines “controlling health standards” as any federal, state or local law or regulation, or any written order by a governmental body, that “prescribed the manner in which a business must operate at the time the person allegedly failed to comply.”

That includes existing mask-wearing mandates and limits on gatherings of more than 50 people, but would not encompass many of the technically nonbinding recommendations made by the governor’s office and health officials over the many months of the pandemic. 

That controlling health standard language was tightened from an original draft of the bill obtained by The Nevada Independent, which referred to any state, local or federal health policies, laws or ordinances that were “clearly and conspicuously related to COVID-19 and which were in effect at the time of the alleged exposure.”

But the other part of the liability equation is determining whether or not the business is in “substantial compliance” with those controlling health standards. 

That term (“substantial compliance”) is also defined in the bill — as “good faith efforts” to help control spread of COVID-19, including establishing policies to enforce and implement controlling health standards in a “reasonable matter.” It also excludes “isolated or unforeseen events of noncompliance,” meaning that one-off contracting of the virus would not meet that standard required to bring a lawsuit.

The legal liability sections of the bill are set to expire whenever the governor lifts his declaration of emergency related to the pandemic, or by July 2023.

Multiple business and casino companies testified in support of the bill, citing the liability protections in particular. Sasha Stephenson, a lobbyist with MGM Resorts, said the casino company believed the litigation protections were necessary to help with the state’s economic recovery. 

“Unfounded litigation has the potential to cripple Nevada's businesses, leading to more closures and greater economic difficulties,” she said. “The targeted liability protection itself will have the opposite effect. It will allow good actors to stay open as long as they remain vigilant in keeping employees and guests safe.”

But the bill met staunch opposition from left-leaning groups, teacher unions and the state’s trade association for trial attorneys. Both the Nevada State Education Association and Clark County Education Association opposed the bill, citing concerns that it would incentivize schools to cut corners and not take full safety measures thanks to the lifted threat of litigation.

“While it is encouraging that kids don’t get sick and die in the same numbers as adults from COVID-19, evidence is mounting that they can be significant vectors,” NSEA lobbyist Chris Daly said. “Now, as thousands of educators and families prepare to go back to school, we believe essential school supplies should mean pencils and paper or Chromebooks and wifi, not wills and trusts.”

Nevada Justice Association board member Matthew Sharp, a trial attorney, said that supporters had provided no “coherent explanation” for what “controlling health standards” would include, and that there had been few if any such COVID-19 related personal injury lawsuits filed in the state thus far. 

“This Legislature, convening literally at the dead of night, is considering giving essentially complete immunity to certain businesses,” he said. “This isn't what a special session is for. And what we are looking at is a solution looking for our problem.”

Hospital exclusions

The legislation also came under heavy fire during the hearing from hospitals and other health care facilities, which argued that they were being treated unequally by being excluded from the liability protections. Hospitals also argued that if they were not extended the liability protections, they would have to make significant changes to hospital operations, including restricting visitors, students and vendors.

Bill Welch, CEO of the Nevada Hospital Association, also said that the legislation would hinder the ability of hospitals to be able to discharge their patients to long-term care and hospice facilities, limiting bed space to treat COVID-19 patients.

“Throughout this pandemic, we have worked closely with Governor Sisolak and his office to fully support his goals to flatten the curve and protect hospital capacity. As written, this bill puts that capacity at risk, and undermines our efforts to protect Nevadans’ health,” Welch said. “Nevada hospitals are the frontline of this pandemic. Hospital capacity is critical for providers to treat this fast-spreading virus.”

Gibson, during the hearing, argued that hospitals are already afforded certain immunities and protections under an emergency directive exempting them from liability “except in cases of willful misconduct or gross negligence” because of their role in responding to the pandemic.

Later, he acknowledged that the decision to exclude health care facilities was a byproduct of conversations with stakeholders and suggested that the deal between casinos, the business community and the Culinary Union might fall apart if legislators were to propose an amendment.

Gibson then backtracked slightly, after he was pressed by Sen. Keith Pickard about who exactly was involved in drafting the legislation, with the governor’s counsel saying that he may have “oversimplified” his response. He suggested that health care facilities are already held to a higher standard because of the type of business they run.

“They're able to manage illness in a way that other businesses are not because they're experts in these spaces,” Gibson. “Our role was to try to not overburden the bill, but at the same time to extend it into every possible business that we could, with limitations.”

However, not all health care facilities will be treated equally under the bill. Legislative legal staff confirmed that University Medical Center, the county-run hospital in Clark County, would qualify for the liability protections since it is a government entity, and any county-run rural hospitals would be eligible as well.

State to consider contracts totaling $600,000 for firms that would help with education funding formula

The back end of a Clark County School bus

Update at 10:50 a.m. on 11/12/19: The Board of Examiners approved the contracts for Applied Analysis, APA Consulting and WestEd on Tuesday morning with little discussion, aside from a wording change within one contract.

***

The Board of Examiners on Tuesday will consider approving three $200,000 contracts for companies that could play a key role in implementing the state’s new education funding formula.

The companies recommended by the Department of Education to receive the contracts are: Applied Analysis, a Las Vegas-based fiscal and data research firm; Augenblick Palaich and Associates, a Denver-based consulting firm specializing in school finance; and WestEd, a nonprofit education research organization headquartered in San Francisco. Each contract would run through June 2021, with a combined price tag of $600,000.

There are no other companies competing for these sole-source contracts, a situation education officials described as necessary given timing constraints within Senate Bill 543, which created the new education funding formula. The firms will be involved in cost modeling — showing the effect funding formula variables will have on school districts — as well as overall guidance and research related to how other states have handled a similar transition.

“Valuable time will be lost if the Department must go through the competitive bid process,” education officials wrote in the Applied Analysis funding request. “As noted previously, the workload to be completed within the next year, in order to be compliant with SB543, are tremendous.”

Similar explanations appeared in the two other funding requests as well. 

If the companies sound familiar, that’s because they’ve all had some connection to the Nevada education world in recent years. Jeremy Aguero, a principal with Applied Analysis, became a regular face in the legislative hallways while helping craft SB543; Augenblick Palaich and Associates, sometimes referred to as APA Consulting, in 2018 conducted a Nevada school finance study, which informed lawmakers during the development of SB543. And the state education department has worked with WestEd over the years, sometimes in a professional development-like capacity, department spokesman Greg Bortolin said.

Some education stakeholders had raised questions  about Applied Analysis’s role in crafting SB543 — specifically, who was paying the company. Aguero addressed that concern during a Commission on School Funding meeting earlier this month, saying he had separate contracts with the Clark and Washoe county school districts. He said both were relatively broad in scope.

Aguero said his involvement with the funding formula overhaul came about because state Sens. Joyce Woodhouse and Mo Denis asked for his assistance, and the analyst — a product of the Clark County School District, where his three children attend and his wife works as a teacher — considered it a worthy cause.

Asked by The Nevada Independent whether the state or anyone else was paying for his SB543-related work, he responded “no” via email. Much of the firm’s work on the legislation led to a “significant amount of uncompensated time,” he wrote.

The Nevada State Education Association was among those that had expressed concerns about Applied Analysis’s pay arrangement during the session, but the union’s lobbyist, Chris Daly, said it supports the approval of the three new contracts. He noted that the companies — one local and two out-of-state — already have laid some of the funding formula groundwork.

“We think that it’s important that the funding commission has access to the research and support that they need to do the work in front of them,” he said.

The three companies stand to aid — and really jumpstart — the work of the Commission on School Funding, which SB543 created to guide the implementation of the new K-12 funding formula. The legislation outlined the parameters of the new formula, such as placing revenue streams in a single funding pot and moving toward a weighted funding model, but some of the key calculations haven’t been determined yet. 

For instance, the legislation calls for “cost adjustment factors” that take into account the cost of living and labor in various districts. 

Heidi Haartz, the state’s deputy superintendent for business and support services, said Applied Analysis, APA Consulting and WestEd likely will run various models to show the commission how certain decisions — such as the cost adjustment factors — affect education funding distribution throughout the state. Ultimately, the commission is charged with providing recommendations to the Legislature and Gov. Steve Sisolak by July 15. 

The Commission on School Funding has met three times so far and has received presentations from both Applied Analysis and APA Consulting. It has more meetings scheduled Thursday and Friday. If the contracts are approved, more information about the firms’ role likely will emerge later this week. The commission plans to discuss its expectations for subject-matter expertise, including what information and resources members anticipate needing.

SB543 included an appropriation worth roughly $6.6 million to the Interim Finance Committee’s contingency account for the purpose of implementing the new funding formula. The state education department has hired two full-time staff members to assist with the transition, in addition to the contracts it would be entering into with Applied Analysis, APA Consulting and WestEd, which are considered subject-matter experts.

The Board of Examiners, which consists of the governor, Attorney General Aaron Ford and Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske, reviews payments authorized by the Legislature.

Presidential hopefuls cite labor in opposition to Medicare for all, but what do Nevada’s unions want?

Union member stands holding flag

The Culinary Health Center lies within an unremarkable building on an unremarkable block in East Las Vegas.

But the clinic’s beige exterior belies its well-appointed interior — a granite, concierge-style reception desk where patients are greeted, tiled columns, wood paneled ceilings, modern globe light fixtures and wall decorations shimmering with gold-colored threads. If Culinary workers spend their days laboring in some of the most glitzy casinos on the Las Vegas Strip, their union wanted them to have an equally as pleasant aesthetic experience while receiving their health care, union officials have said.

Patients can show up to the center’s urgent care at any hour on any day of the week to get treatment. If it’s a more complicated case, labs and radiology — including CT scans — can be performed on site. If they have a tooth or eye issue, the dental and vision departments on site can be called for a consult. Patients can be set up for a follow up appointment upstairs in the primary care department. Any medicines they may need are provided free of charge just down the hall in the pharmacy where the wait time is an average of nine minutes. The goal was for the urgent care to see 30 patients a day. It sees 200.

For Culinary Union members, the 60,000-square-foot health clinic serves as a physical reminder of the health plan they have fought for since the 1960s. Roughly 130,000 workers and their family members receive health insurance coverage under the Culinary Health Fund, a multiemployer benefit trust fund also sometimes called a Taft-Hartley fund. The way it works is that employers of Culinary Union members pay money into the fund for each hour worked, which is then used to pay for health care for union members and their families. Employer contributions to the trust fund are negotiated through the collective bargaining process, and the fund itself is administered by a board of trustees with equal employer and union representation.

“We went through a lot of struggle to get health care for families, and a lot of sacrifice too,” said Geoconda Arguello-Kline, the Culinary Union’s secretary-treasurer, pointing to the union’s 67-day citywide strike in 1984 in which employer contributions to the health trust was a central issue.

Health care is often named as the top issue for voters heading into the 2020 presidential election and, particularly, Democratic voters. Democratic presidential hopefuls have been eager to stake their claim on the issue, from Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who support a single-payer Medicare for all system, to Vice President Joe Biden, who favors expanding the Affordable Care Act and creating a public option plan that Americans can buy into.

The union health plan, Arguello-Kline said, is working for Culinary members. But that isn’t true for many Americans nationwide. A Kaiser Family Foundation/Los Angeles Times poll earlier this year that found while most Americans covered under traditional employer-sponsored plans are largely satisfied with their coverage, about 40 percent reported health-related financial difficulties in the prior 12 months, including paying their medical bills and affording the deductibles, copays and coinsurance required by their plans.

In this debate over health care reform, unions have become a central focus. At a labor forum in Las Vegas earlier this summer, Sanders touted that Medicare for all would take the health care conversation away from the negotiating table and allow workers to purely focus on negotiating for better wages, and Warren suggested that there would be some mechanism by which to ensure that unions get “fully compensated for what they have negotiated for” — meaning finding some way to ensure unions don’t lose out on potentially decades of wage concessions they’ve made for more robust health plans.

But at that forum they were, by far, in the minority of Democratic hopefuls, many of whom have used the unions as a cudgel against Medicare for all.

South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who has slowly been climbing into frontrunner territory in the polls, has specifically mentioned the Culinary Union in making his pitch for his “Medicare for all who want it” plan, which is essentially a public option where people could buy into the government-run Medicare plan.

“If you like your private plan — I’m thinking for example about the Culinary workers who have negotiated and fought year after year for a good plan and earned it and it’s part of your compensation — I’m not going to make you give it up,” Buttigieg said at a rally in East Las Vegas on Tuesday. “We’ll let you decide whether the plan we create is better or not.”

Those who have been far less publicly vocal about their feelings about Medicare for all are the unions themselves on the ground here in Nevada. Of the more than a dozen union leaders contacted by The Nevada Independent, most expressed significant concerns about the possibility of their hard-fought health care plans going away under Medicare for all, while a smaller minority voiced support or openness toward a single-payer system.

Where there was more agreement is in how the unions are being used in the Medicare for all debate.

“One of the things that we’ve been very careful about is we don’t want candidates trying to use this union health care versus non-union health care as a wedge issue for our members because that doesn’t do anybody any good,” said Rusty McAllister, executive secretary-treasurer of the Nevada State AFL-CIO. “You can’t come out with a position that ‘unions don’t support this’ because you can’t speak for all the unions.”

Employees at the front desk of a health clinic
Employees work at the front desk of the Culinary Health Center in East Las Vegas on Thursday, Oct. 18, 2019 (Daniel Clark/The Nevada Independent)

Pros and cons

Unions here are generally in agreement that everyone should have access to health care. Where they disagree is what that should look like.

One primary concern unions have about Medicare for all is that establishing a single-payer, government-run health care system will wipe out years of work at the negotiating table. Every dollar unions have asked employers to put into their health trust funds is a dollar that could have gone toward wage increases. The question is what happens to that money when it is no longer needed to pay for health care: Do the employers pocket it, or does it flow to worker paychecks?

“Medicare for all comes along, what does — in our case the contractor who we work for — and the union, how do they sit down and have a conversation about what to do with that money?” said William Stanley, executive secretary-treasurer of the Southern Nevada Building Trades. “There’s $10 or $15 an hour going to a trust fund for health care that’s no longer required because there’s Medicare for all. How does that contribution get divided? How is there a decision made, or are you just going to let the employer and the union fight it out and whoever is in the position of power wins and somebody walks from the table mad?”

Most of the building trades unions secured their health care provisions back in the 1960s and 1970s, Stanley said, which means that there have been six decades of making concessions at the negotiating table to get those health care benefits.

“How do you now go back and divide up those contributions?” Stanley said. “It’s a mess.”

But proponents argue that removing the health care conversation from the bargaining table would allow them to focus on other issues such as better wages and safer working conditions.

“Every time workers are going to the bargaining table, the employers are constantly trying to figure out how to put more and more cost on employees, and the insurance companies are trying to get more out of the employers. For us, they’re trying to figure out how to pass that along to the employee,” said Brian Shepherd, chief of staff for SEIU Local 1107. “Taking that off the table means we could focus on safer staffing levels, caseloads, better working conditions, which is what our members want to negotiate over.”

The union, which represents health care workers at major hospitals across the state as well as county employees, has gone so far as to explicitly endorse the mission of fighting for health care for all in its local constitution and bylaws.

“We are advocates for health care for every single person,” Shepherd said. “Now, I think where I think there are some differences is how do you get that done. If everybody has to have health care, we’re not just talking about insurance, we’re talking about actual health care.”

One primary difference between SEIU and other unions in Nevada wary of Medicare for all is that SEIU members here have employer-sponsored coverage, with the union bargaining for how much of the cost employees should pay and any changes in coverage, instead of running its own nonprofit health plan or, like the Culinary Union, a health clinic.

The Laborers Local 872, which represents construction workers in Las Vegas, has run its own clinic for more than a decade.

“Our clinic does fantastic for us. No copayments, there’s no out of pocket money, it’s free for our members and their spouses and their children,” said Tommy White, secretary-treasurer and business manager for the union. “It’s saved our health plan a ton of money and it isn’t that expensive. The cost of building the clinic and having it there for our members was a lot cheaper than having our members go to the emergency room or wait a month to see a doctor.”

Running a clinic has also given the union significant control over the health of its members in a way that it wouldn’t if its members were covered under an off-the-shelf private plan or a government plan. White said that after his brother-in-law overdosed on Christmas Day 2005, he got serious about cracking down on opioid prescribing — years before it was identified as a national epidemic.

“I started monitoring doctors. When I found doctors that were overprescribing members, we threw them out of our plan. No one wants to be proactive that way,” White said. “I had to take some heat from my members — ‘What did you do? He was a good doctor. He took care of my mom.’ He might have been doing the right thing for your mother, but he was doing the wrong thing for your sister or for somebody else’s family member.”

It comes as no surprise, then, that the Laborers are staunchly opposed to Medicare for all.

“We’re against it, and if there’s a candidate that’s going to come in and start saying, ‘We’re going to push Medicare for all,’ we’re not going to endorse them,” White said. “I speak it the way it is. I might get my ass in a jam every once in awhile for doing that, but I’ve got to protect what my members want. We’re more than willing to put in our fair share to help people, but we don’t want people telling us how much our deductible is going to be, our copayment is going to be, what we can prescribe.”

That’s another key issue for many unions that run their own health plans. A Medicare for all plan likely won’t cover some of the specialized, industry-specific benefits they have included in their plans. For the building trades, that might be more extensive chiropractic and orthopedic coverage. For police and fire, better mental health coverage to help with post-traumatic stress disorders. For the laborers, acupuncture and lasik surgery.

“It was cheaper to do lasik than it was to issue glasses every year or two years,” White said. “Medicare isn’t going to cover lasik.”

Union member speaks at forum
An AFSCME union member asks a question at a Democratic presidential candidate forum at UNLV on Saturday, Aug. 3, 2019. (HuffPost/Courtesy)

A cautionary tale

But not all self-funded plans come the same.

Teachers in Clark County are covered under the Teachers Health Trust, a teacher-run nonprofit health plan beset by problems in recent years. With the school district hit hard by the recession and stagnating premium contributions, the trust slashed benefits from its once robust health plan in 2014 and shifted costs toward employees. That gave way to complaints from teachers about insurance hassles and even a class-action lawsuit against the trust.

In 2018, an arbitrator sided with Clark County School District teachers in a contract standoff with the district, requiring the district to increase its contributions to the health trust per teacher from about $538 to $583 a month.

John Vellardita, the executive director of the Clark County Education Association, said that the trust is “on the road to recovery” now with the increased contributions, but the plan is no longer what it once was. He blames, in part, the skyrocketing costs of health care.

“To the extent that the economy is good and your employer has that kind of money where you can bargain those increases, then it’s going to be great,” Vellardita said. “But the risk, the exposure you have is when there is a downturn in the economy and the employer is facing financial difficulties in that economy, it’s going to impact what goes on at the table. The table does not control health care costs. The market controls health care costs.”

Vellardita acknowledged the concerns that other unions voiced on Medicare for all — that their health plans are built on years of collective bargaining and that having purview over their plans lets them tailor benefits to their members’ needs — but he said that conversation can’t be separated from the economic realities that shape the deals hashed out at the bargaining table.

“The assumption built into that argument is that somehow health care can, in this day and age, be divorced from any kind of economic impact when you’re bargaining with your employer and I don’t see how that exists,” Vellardita said.

He’s also pragmatic about developing a national health care system based around the needs of unions, when only about 11 percent of workers are union members.

“Ninety percent of the population does not have the luxury of collective bargaining for health care,” Vellardita said.

The debate on Medicare for all, he believes, has been framed around a false dichotomy between a universal health care system and protecting union rights to collective bargaining.

“I think we’re at a passing moment in history where both of those solutions are not the solutions we’re going to land on,” Vellardita said. “The first thing that has to be answered is [health care] a right and then, once it’s answered, what’s the role of the government — to be the delivery system or regulate the private sector delivery system?”

On this, the Nevada State Education Association — and, by extension, the National Education Association — and the Clark County Education Association, which broke away from the state and national affiliates last year, are in relative agreement.

“The National Education Association believes that affordable comprehensive health care is a right,” said Chris Daly, a lobbyist for the NSEA. “The association supports a national health care policy that mandates universal coverage with the highest quality health care at the lowest possible cost. The NEA also advocates for incremental reforms to improve the health and health care of children, students, and communities as well as their members.”

There’s one final element that plays into the discussion. Teachers, like the nurses, have been invested on the national level in the Medicare for all debate not just as consumers of health care but as people who work in a profession devoted to the individual wellbeing of humans. If their students aren’t healthy, teachers can’t teach them.

“Health care goes beyond our immediate self interest. It goes to the population we serve in our profession and that’s these kids. When we see these kids not having access to health care and coming into the classroom with the effects of that, you can’t walk away from the issue,” Vellardita said. “You cannot close your classroom door and walk away from this issue because it’s in your classroom."

A group of teachers in red shirts with signs at a rally in front of Liberty High School
Clark County School District teachers rally outside Liberty High School after CCSD Trustees cancel the school board meeting on Thursday, Aug. 22, 2019. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

The politics of health care

The question now is to what extent union’s positions on Medicare for all will shape who they ultimately decide to endorse — if they decide to endorse. Unions are an important constituency for Democrats, and their support could help tip the balance in the presidential nominating contests early next year.

But many unions have kept their powder dry so far, waiting to see how the crowded Democratic field thins out and giving union members time to consider their options.

The politically powerful Culinary Union — whose support is much coveted by Democratic presidential hopefuls — is no different. Arguello-Kline said the union has met with several candidates but that leaders aren’t making any decisions yet. She wouldn’t rule out the possibility of the union endorsing a candidate that backs a single payer system, but she stressed the difficulty of selling a candidate like that to her members.

“How am I going to go and talk to the members and say, ‘You have to support a member like that?’ I don’t think so,” Arguello-Kline said. “The members are really smart, and they want to protect their family first. They understand they have the right to protect their own health care too. How are you going to go and tell the members you’re supporting a person who is going to take away their health care?”

As far as what the union does need to hear from a candidate if they want to have any shot at its endorsement, Arguello-Kline said it’s simple.

“They need to say that they’re going to protect the Culinary Union health care,” she said. “All the union members, not only the Culinary Union.”

For its part, SEIU would like to see candidates keep talking about Medicare for all or any other solution that works toward the goal of universal coverage.

“If we start from the place that health care is a human right, then that means you have to have everybody in and nobody gets left out,” Shepherd said. “As a union that is the largest nurses union in the state, we want more people going to the doctor. We want more people getting the treatment they need so that health care workers can do what they were hired to do, not worried about having to turn away folks because they’re not eligible.”

Jeffrey Proffitt, business manager of the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation (SMART) Workers Local 88, said that the union is in no “way shape or form” ready to endorse a candidate yet. However, he said the plan he believes that most suits union households right now is Biden’s, which he said would “take care of the folks that need the health care” but not “unravel the whole system over here for the unions.”

Right now, the union provides health care to its members through a trust fund that spans three states, but Proffitt said that they’re trying to transition to a more localized health plan similar to the one the Culinary Union has.

“It’s not working for my members right now, but I wouldn’t swing the pendulum the other way and say we need to go to strictly Medicare for all,” Proffitt said.

At the same time, he said that union workers have known Sanders “for years and years and he’s a strong union guy” but he’s “dead set on what he wants to do” on Medicare for all. With Warren, he believes there might be more wiggle room. The Massachusetts senator is expected to soon release a more detailed Medicare for all plan, including how to pay for it.

“What we do like about Elizabeth Warren is she says, ‘Let’s have a discussion.’ We’ve sat in the room with her and it’s about how can we do this. I don’t think that she’s dead set on everything she talks about because they’re ideas,” Proffitt said. “If Medicare for all can weave in with these systems where we can have our own [union] doctors and doctor’s offices, then I think you’ve got something special.”

They’re not the only ones who are open to listening to the arguments for a single-payer system, either. McAllister said that many AFL-CIO affiliates are supportive of something like a single-payer system. It’s more a question of how to get there, he said.

“One of the things I’ve found in this position here is labor’s all on the same mission but often they have a different idea of the best way to get there. That’s kind of where I think a lot of them are right now,” McAllister said. “We’re willing to listen to all options, but let’s make sure that the solution isn’t pitting one group against another.”

Union members rally on the Las Vegas Strip
Union members and activists rally during the May Day March near the Palms on Monday, May 1, 2017. Several thousand people marched along the Las Vegas Strip. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

As charter schools multiply, teachers at traditional public schools have a choice — stay or go?

Tiffany Thompson, a sixth-grade teacher at Legacy Traditional School Southwest Las Vegas, teaches her class

Victoria Welling never fathomed a career in the charter school world.

She spent 18 years working for the Clark County School District, where she sent her own children while also serving as a teacher, dean and, later, an assistant principal.

“I didn’t know anything about charter,” she said. “I wasn’t very familiar with it.”

That changed more than a year ago when a childhood friend encouraged her to look into Legacy Traditional Schools, a public charter school network that has been growing in Southern Nevada. The suggestion came at a moment when Welling was contemplating her future — retirement or a career change? She chose the latter, describing her jump to charter schools as her “something else.”

Welling joined Legacy as an assistant principal at its North Valley campus last year. Now, she’s principal of the Legacy Traditional School Southwest Las Vegas, which opened earlier this month and, like its sister campuses, features a back-to-basics educational approach. Here, students learn cursive, sit in rows of desks facing the teacher and can immerse themselves in fitness and performing arts programs on top of regular academics. 

Victoria Welling, principal of Legacy Traditional School Southwest Las Vegas, talks about the school's recruitment process while sitting in her office on Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2019. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Welling acknowledges the educational philosophy may not be for everyone, but she didn’t run into major problems recruiting 60 teachers to the new school. Her campus started the year with one vacancy — a part-time music teacher. About a third of those teachers, she said, came from traditional public schools.

“People just want to try something else and, if they feel supported and if they feel that small family feeling, I think that’s important,” she said.

Charter leaders say their schools certainly aren’t immune to Nevada’s teacher shortage issue. They have to work just as hard to attract and retain educators, and vacancies happen. But as charter schools multiplied in Nevada, the State Public Charter School Authority effectively became the third-largest school district in the state, serving more than 42,000 students last year. Add charters sponsored by school districts to the mix, and the student population balloons even larger. By comparison, the Clark County School District serves about 320,000 students, while the Washoe County School District enrolls nearly 64,000.

Charter school growth didn’t just give families choice. It also gave educators another option.

So why are some educators making the leap?

***

If teachers make the move to a charter, they’re technically still working at a public school.

Charter schools are public schools that operate under a performance contract issued by a public entity, such as a school district or the Charter Authority. Advocates hail the arrangement as a way for educators to have more autonomy and pioneer new teaching strategies. But critics say charters — which are sometimes managed by for-profit companies — don’t serve a demographically representative student population and siphon money from traditional public schools because they receive state per-pupil dollars.

Most charters also don’t come with the perceived safety net of a union. Nationally, about 11 percent of charter schools are unionized, according to a report released in March by the Center on Reinventing Public Education. But Rebecca Feiden, executive director of the State Public Charter School Authority, said she’s not aware of any Nevada charter schools with unions.

Charter schools started in Minnesota in 1992, igniting a fiery debate in the education realm. The tension isn’t lost on educators who have made the switch.

Kevin Ford teaches eighth-grade English language arts at Doral Academy’s Fire Mesa Campus in northwest Las Vegas. After spending several years at a Clark County School District elementary school, Ford said he wanted to go outside his “comfort zone” but had preconceived notions about charters. He worried charters were eroding public education. But he accepted a friend’s offer to tour one anyway.

“After I went out there and viewed it, I was like, ‘Oh, it’s not that different,’” he said. 

Doral Academy’s emphasis on arts integration, however, was different enough to lure him there. 

Kelly Rafalski, the principal at Doral Academy’s Fire Mesa Campus, came from the Clark County School District, too. For her, the move was about greater autonomy, a smaller organization and fewer off-campus meetings. 

“I like being able to be a school leader, a coach for teachers, here for my students,” she said. “They get to see me every day. I’m on campus all the time except for the rare principals meetings, which is usually once or twice a month.”

The teachers Rafalski recruits don’t solely come from the surrounding school district. This year she hired teachers from Pennsylvania and Utah. And while teachers may yearn for a philosophical void they think charters can fill, Rafalski said money can be an obstacle. She can’t always match the higher salaries veteran teachers earn in the school district, which, in turn, means it’s easier to attract younger educators.

“I never had to talk salary with teachers,” Rafalski said, referring to her time at the school district. “That’s more of a puzzle we have to work with (at) charters.”

Academica Nevada, a for-profit charter management organization that services several Nevada charter systems, has promoted teacher autonomy and offered annual retention bonuses and tuition reimbursement programs, said Ryan Reeves, the organization’s chief operating officer. But he doesn’t believe charters are any worse or better off than the school district when it comes to filling classroom positions.

“We face many of the same challenges,” he said. “We have many of the same opportunities. The programs that have helped and improved things for the school district have also helped and improved things for charters.”

The State Public Charter School Authority has been collecting data about staff vacancies at charters under its purview. 

Information from the charter schools or networks that have responded shows a mixed bag.  Nineteen schools reported zero teaching vacancies as of Aug. 16, according to data from the Charter Authority. On the higher end, Imagine Schools at Mountain View reported 15 teaching vacancies, and Mater Academy Mountain Vista had 19 at that time. It’s unclear what the teacher vacancy rate is across Charter Authority because not all schools have reported their numbers yet.

Meanwhile, the Clark County School District started the year with roughly 750 unfilled teaching positions, or about a 5 percent vacancy rate. The Washoe County School District said it’s short 43 teachers, which translates to a 1 percent vacancy rate.

If charter schools have a recruiting advantage, it could be a more personalized touch, said Carrie Buck, executive director of Pinecrest Academy of Nevada. Without a large human resources department, principals often attend job fairs, allowing them to speak directly with prospective teachers, she said. 

Pinecrest also gives cash incentives to teachers who stay and recruit other staff members. In the end, Buck said, it boils down to word of mouth — not really any different than how charters entice families to enroll their children.

“How do we get kids? Well, we get other parents to talk about how awesome we are,” she said. “It’s the same thing with teachers. Teachers talk.”

***

Sixth-graders at Legacy Traditional School Southwest Las Vegas listen during class on Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2019. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Why teachers leave traditional public schools for charters hasn’t been fully studied in Nevada, said Dana Brickmore, an associate professor in UNLV’s Educational Policy and Leadership Program.

She said a variety of factors are likely at play, including teachers’ quest for more autonomy or their perception that the job may not be as difficult. Compared with Nevada’s traditional public schools, state-sponsored charter schools enroll a disproportionately lower number of students learning English as a second language, living in low-income households or who have an individualized education program (IEP). Efforts are underway to change that dynamic, though. 

Chris Daly, the deputy executive director of government relations for the Nevada State Education Association, agrees with her theory.

“We do know that sometimes teachers will leave schools in tougher neighborhoods in Las Vegas and head to the suburbs,” he said. “You can almost make a similar argument about why you’d leave a central Las Vegas school and go to a charter.”

Legislation passed this year aims to make the charter student population more demographically representative of the state. Assembly Bill 462 requires the Charter Authority to do an annual academic and demographic needs assessment. Applications for new charter schools must meet at least one of the needs identified by the assessment to gain approval.

The demographic needs identified in the Charter Authority’s first assessment are for charter schools that serve underperforming student populations, such as English language learners, children living in low-income households and students with IEPs. Applicants hoping to fill an academic need must either locate a charter in a ZIP code with one- or two-star traditional public schools or propose a model that prevents at-risk students from dropping out of school.

Even so, teachers who moved to charter schools say they still encounter many of the same challenges they did in their prior classrooms. Ford, who teaches at a Doral Academy campus, said one of his students threw a shoe across the classroom on his first day at the charter school.

“It was just an eye-opening experience that kids are going to be kids no matter where you are,” he said. “Being in a charter doesn’t fix it in itself.”

The movement of teachers is a two-way street. Some try a charter, only to realize it’s not the right fit and return to a traditional public school. 

The Clark County School District doesn’t specifically track the number of teachers departing for charters or returning from them. School district data, however, shows that 60 teachers left between Aug. 1, 2018, and July 31 because they were moving to another Nevada district, which could include charter schools. Sixty-six Clark County teachers didn’t give a reason for their departure. Hundreds more teachers left for a variety of other reasons, including retirement, out-of-state moves, family matters and career changes.

The district’s ongoing labor dispute with the teachers’ union and looming threats of a strike have heightened fears that even more teachers will flee traditional public schools — with perhaps some winding up down the street at a charter. If so, they’ll likely encounter other district expats.

Tiffany Thompson is among those who made the jump to charters and then stayed. Thompson, a sixth-grade teacher at Legacy Traditional Schools’ new campus in southwest Las Vegas, previously taught at district schools in Clark County and San Diego.

Ultimately, she sought an environment where she felt supported both in spirit and resources. She wanted her students to have their own textbooks, not a shared book or photocopied pages.

Without those worries hanging overhead, Thompson said she has more time to connect with her students and their families.

“We’re not overwhelmed with the lack of curriculum. We’re not overwhelmed with the lack of resources,” she said. “So we have that time to clearly go through our day, plan and know that we’re going to get into and how much more we want to get into it.”

On a recent day in her classroom, that meant diving into a lesson on sentence subjects and predicates. As her uniform-class students sat in tidy rows of desks, Thompson used her animated personality to engage them and make a mundane topic more fun.

That’s the universal challenge all teachers face, regardless of their academic setting.

Bills reversing 2015 changes to collective bargaining pick up steam in last week of Legislature

Union member stands holding flag

Two bills reversing changes made to Nevada’s collective bargaining law in the Republican-controlled 2015 Legislature appear to be finally moving forward in the last week, although the fate of a more ambitious bill extending bargaining rights to state workers is still in flux.

Months after the bills were first introduced and heard, members of the Senate Finance Committee held hearings Monday on SB153 and SB111 — two bills sponsored by Democratic Sen. David Parks that aim to reverse many provisions of a wide-ranging collective bargaining bill passed in 2015 that modified the collective bargaining process for local employees and prohibited principals from participating in collective bargaining agreements. Several labor unions argued the bills would improve the bargaining process and cut down on time spent in arbitration, while the Clark County School District warned that the bills add tens of millions in new costs.

Though their appearance in the Finance Committee is a sign that the bills are likely to start moving through the legislative process with roughly a week to go before the end of the 120-day session, their appearance is likely to spark questions about the future of SB135, which would allow state government workers the right to collectively bargain.

Parks said he didn’t know when or if the bill — entombed in the Senate Finance Committee since mid-April — would move forward. But he said his other two collective bargaining bills would go a long way to restoring the system in place prior to the passage of the 2015 law, which he and only three other Democrats opposed at the time.

“I think that it certainly fell far short of what the intent was when those bills were introduced,” he said. “My attitude is from having many years of labor negotiations and experience in the public sector, we had a system that didn’t work perfectly, but it certainly worked well. What (SB241) did was just make a mess of it, and it’s been that way since.”

The biggest fight on Monday came over Parks’ SB111, which reduces the amount of funds a local government can exempt from their ending fund balance in collective bargaining negotiations from 25 percent to 16.67 percent, and a new requirement that any money appropriated by the Legislature for salary and benefits be part of a negotiation during collective bargaining and considered by a fact-finder or arbitrator when determining a school district’s ability to pay compensation.

That last section of the bill sparked opposition from the Clark County School District, which placed a massive fiscal note on the bill saying that implementation would cost $36 million a year, and $72 million in future budget cycles in order to comply with annual pay raises without sufficient funding. But it could also play a critical role as lawmakers look for ways to fund a promised 3 percent teacher pay raise without having the district use the funds for other purposes.

Stephen Augspurger, head of the Clark County Association of School Administrators and Professional-Technical Employees, gave legislators a copy of the last budget’s legislative allocations showing that the state had appropriated $164.8 million for a 2 percent merit increase for educators and staff, and said that the provisions in SB111 would ensure that the money would actually be spent for merit increases as opposed to filling gaps in the district’s budget.

“The Legislature has provided that money to the school district,” he said. “They have that money. It should be spent for normal movement on the salary schedule. It hasn't, it would be disingenuous to say now that there's a fiscal note on this bill.”

Brad Keating, a lobbyist for the school district, said the fiscal note was accurate and that the district often faced unexpected and huge costs (such as an extra $18 million needed for special education) and that the state’s antiquated and byzantine funding formula made it hard to draw a straight line between money appropriated by state lawmakers and actual dollars going to educators for merit pay increases.

“When dollars go into the formula, they don't come out to the same amount and nothing is broken down by line item,” he said. “So how are we supposed to give out at guaranteed raises when we don't know how much we truly receive as a district?”

Parks said he didn’t believe the school district’s fiscal note was accurate.

“I have a strong opinion about fiscal notes, and I think that if you want to kill a bill, you put a fiscal note on it,” he said in an interview. “I think that in this particular situation, I think it’s an unsubstantiated fiscal note.”

The other portion of the bill — lowering the reserved ending fund balance that could be walled off from collective bargaining negotiations — was supported by union representatives and Mary Walker, a lobbyist for several rural counties who said the change would still ensure governments had at least two months in a reserve balance while having enough financial flexibility for personnel costs during times of an economic downturn.

“I believe this is sound fiscal policy, and that SB111 will provide local governments financial stability in times of recession,” she said. “This will help minimize layoffs during cutbacks.”

The other bill, SB153, makes several reversals and repeals sections of former Republican Sen. Michael Roberson’s bill from the 2015 session that added several restrictions toward the ability of school principals and administrators to collectively bargain.

The bill repeals three sections of the 2015 law, including provisions requiring that employee organizations offer concessions for the full cost if an employee takes leave to perform duties or services for their union, and two sections requiring school principals to be at-will employees and for certain school administrators to re-apply for their positions every five years. It also allows school principals and other administrators below the rank of superintendent to participate in a collective bargaining unit separate from school teachers — undoing another provision of the 2015 law.

The measure also revises certain rules on arbitration for impasses in collective bargaining negotiations, including a requirement for four (rather than eight) negotiating sessions and time limits on holding hearings after selecting an arbiter. It also would allow for “evergreen” clauses in collective bargaining agreements, which are provisions that allow regularly scheduled pay raises and other parts of collective bargaining agreements to continue after an agreement expires.

Former Gov. Brian Sandoval vetoed a similar bill last session that attempted to make many of the same changes to the 2015 collective bargaining law.

Professional Firefighters of Nevada lobbyist Tom Dunn said the lack of those clauses hurt workers and incentivized local governments to delay negotiations as long as possible.

“All it's going to do in the long term is cost both local government and more importantly the bargaining units that we represent time and money,” Dunn said. “All it's going to do is drag out the process further than it was prior to 2015, and there is going to be a harm to local government employees because every day that this process gets dragged out is potentially a benefit or more importantly a PERS retirement contribution that has been decreased. And it's a complete and total budget savings for local government.”

As introduced, the Clark County School District said implementing the bill would cost around $36 million per year to implement, raising similar concerns to Parks’ other bill that would require additional spending for merit pay increases without any increase in funding.

Chris Daly, a lobbyist for the Nevada State Education Association, said that the current bargaining rules were “cumbersome and unworkable,” and said the district’s assumptions in the fiscal note were a worst-case scenario and unlikely to actually occur.

“We think that this fiscal note is not real in terms of how this would play out for that school district,” he said.

Democratic Sen. Joyce Woodhouse, who chairs the Senate Finance committee, said she hoped to bring both bills up for a committee vote sometime later this week.