Heath Morrison (at left in photo) is Washoe County superintendent of schools. Dan Klaich is Nevada higher education chancellor. After their systems have taken major cuts during the recession, they are trying to convince the public and legislators on reverse that trend.
What’s at stake in this legislature for your system?
I think the most immediate thing that people are going to look to is the budget, of course. It seems like ever since we came out with our strategic plan, everybody wants to ask, “Can you do the things in your strategic plan if you take huge budget cuts?” And what we said since we came out with our strategic plan is that we created a plan very cognizant of the state budget, very aware that we were not going to be expecting any new money from the state any time in the near future. But we also thought like we’re in a position in terms of where Nevada is funded right now that we couldn’t do with substantially less. And so I think the most immediate thing is going to be the budget. Just looking at the budget that was proposed by the governor for Washoe County School District, it would be about a $45 million budget reduction if adopted, and on top of that there’s about a $30 million loss of local funding because of the two-thirds of property tax [and other losses]. All told, that’s a $75 million budget challenge. That’s after a $37 million reduction last year, $44 million three years before that [Nevada state budgets are written biennially]. So I think the most immediate challenge is the budget. But I also thing that there [are] some pretty important reforms that the governor has started to propose and different lawmakers have started to propose and so I think clearly the success of some of those reforms are important to see how we can improve education in Nevada. But I think the most immediate thing most people are going to point to—and rightly so—is the budget.
Nevada has a huge senior citizen population. People have been moving here for decades to get away from the northeast. How do you make a case to them and to others who do not have children that they have an interest in schools?
It’s a great question and, you know, as you look across the country, anywhere from 60 to 70 percent of the taxpayers at any community may not have children in the public education system—most of whom either had kids and they’ve grown up or they moved to a community where they never had had kids. And so you’ve got a lot of people who pay taxes. You might say, “Well, how do my taxes come back to the benefit to me?” And it’s a great question and something that I think we have to do a better job in terms of explaining why education is such an imperative. I always start with, “It’s a moral imperative.” I think education is one of those pillars that a community is valued by, and the quality of schools says something important about the community. … And I think all of us as adults want to see the future of young people be better than the future that we had, just as one day they will be adults and hopefully they will have that same compelling need to make better futures for young people.
But I also am very aware of the fact that that moral imperative to increase the productivity of public education may not be as strong for some folks, so the question is “Why should I pay be willing to pay taxes?” or “Why should I even be willing to entertain higher taxes?” And I think what we’ve been trying to talk about in the Washoe County School District is the connection between the economy and public education, both K-12 and higher ed. And so as I look at it, right now, today, with close to a 15 percent unemployment rate, there’s 195,000 Nevadans looking for work. Really, most economists will tell you it’s about 220,000 Nevadans because many people aren’t documented [in] their unemployment status. The vast majority of those unemployed Nevadans don’t have a high school diploma. When you look at how many kids aren’t graduating from our K-12 system, we’re in a state where the state graduation rate is slightly above 50 percent. And there’s 440,000 students in the 17 school districts, so there’s 220,000 young Nevadans who are on a trajectory to graduate right now, unless we change massively. And so when you look at 220,000 Nevadans looking for work who don’t have a high school diploma, many of them, when you look at 220,000 students not on a track to graduate, there’s a connection there. There’s a huge connection between the economy and public education.
And so that’s why we’ve been so focused on change in Washoe County. It’s great. For us, our graduation rate is above the state and has been for the last few years. It was 55, 56 percent. This past year, we took a 7 percent increase, so we’ve been at 63 percent. Now we are well above the state graduation rate, but we’re still not good enough. So the connection is really important because to any taxpayer, what I would say is, there is a huge cost when we’re not graduating children. We are spending $26, $27 million to remediate kids for higher education when we’re not graduating them at grade level. If we increase the male graduation rate in Nevada by 5 percent, we bring in $78 million more to our state revenues. By not graduating the kids that we failed to graduate in Nevada in the class of 2009, over the course of their lifetime, we will lose $5 billion. So at a time when everybody’s talking about the cost of education, if we improve it and we educate kids better, there will be a cost savings. There’ll be less in terms of social needs. There’ll be less in terms of what we have to do to incarcerate young people. The vast majority—over 75 percent of the young people in prison—don’t have a high school diploma. That’s a lot of money that we’re spending to incarcerate young people instead of educating them. So I think the moral imperative is the most important reason, but I also think getting the public to understand there’s a huge cost savings to educating children at grade level is equally important.
It’s relatively easy for Chancellor Klaich to make the case that the campuses have a role in economic development. Some companies work directly with the campuses. Can you make as easy a case?
I think it’s very easy. I think, first of all, for companies that want to stay or companies that want to come, they have to look at the quality of life. And it gets back to the idea of education as a pillar of the community. Everybody asks, “Are there good schools?” My daughter’s very much into HDTV. I sat down with her yesterday and there was somebody talking about the different houses they were looking at. And you heard these people constantly not only talking about how beautiful the house was, they were talking about the quality of schools near these houses.
These were who?
This was on HDTV. It’s one of those three-houses-and-which-one-did-they-buy? shows. But it was, you know, constantly there were conversations about the quality of the house and then the proximity to the quality of the schools. I came from a school district in Montgomery County, Maryland, where the quality of education, the K-12 system was so strong, so publicly well respected, that companies such as Sprint, Lockheed Martin, Nextel, Marriott publicly said they relocated headquarters to make these schools available to their workers. So I think companies will come, companies will stay based on the overall quality of education, both K-12 and higher ed.
What I’m excited about is partnerships that we are engaging in with higher ed. I think, in many ways, [they] are unprecedented anywhere else in the country. Myself, Dr. Glick [UNR president Milton Glick] and Dr. Sheehan [Truckee Meadows Community College President Maria Sheehan] meet every month. We actually met last Friday. And so we’re trying to partner in a way that I don’t believe has ever happened before. So for example, one of the things in our strategic plan is to create academies and signature programs. These academy/signature programs will be things like academies of biomedical, academies of geothermal, academies of business and finance, things that are going to look ahead at the kind of jobs we’re trying to keep and attract to Nevada. And so we want to partner with higher education to make sure that we have these academies all throughout our school district. We’ll engage our kids and then have children go through these academies for four years of high school and then go on to two year, four year programs of higher education. And then think about the ability for a group like EDAWN [Economic Development Authority of Western Nevada] to attract a company where they could say, “Hey, we are offering you a workforce that is very experienced in the areas that you are … wanting a quality work force to have.” And so I just think it is very easy to look at that tie between education and economic development. The governor has spoken about that. You know, serving on his transition team, right from the start he said, “My two high priorities are going to be economic development and improvement in education.” And he has made the tie between the two. So I don’t think it’s hard to make at all.
Suppose everything comes out of the legislature the way you don’t want it to. The governor’s vetoes hold, there’s no new revenue, it’s a maintenance—or not even a maintenance budget. What happens to the master plan then? Are you prepared for the contingency?
Well, you know, everybody wants to know, “What are you going to cut?” And at this point we can’t say what we’re going to cut because we don’t know what we would have to cut. What we do know is the governor has proposed a budget. We know approximately right now, based on anticipated revenues, that that state reduction and local reduction could mean as high as $75 million. So we have to be very pro-active and start planning about how we would address the $75 million budget reduction. And so we’re going through that process we’re going to use. And the process is we’re going to have surveys for our community, we’re going to do the most aggressive surveying we’ve ever done, we’re going to have a lot of public meetings to get a lot of public input. At the end of the day, though, what we will do is look at our strategic plan and make our budget decisions built around that strategic plan. We simply can’t wait to see, well, what groups show up at the board of education the most and protest the most, we have to look at our strategic plan and make our budget match our strategic plan. That’s what a Fortune 500 company does. It has [a] business plan and it matches its budget quarterly.
I think your original part of that question is, Will we have to scale back on things in our strategic plan? And the answer is, you know, if the cuts are significant enough, the answer would have to be yes. And I would hate to do that. I think the reason our strategic plan has gotten so much public notice, not only in our community but across the state and even across the country, is it’s extremely—I think, very well written, high on accountability. We have the goals that we’re trying to do, the targets that we’re trying to hit. We’re saying we want to be accountable. We don’t want to backtrack off of any of the accountability. As a matter of fact, we want to increase the accountability. We’re getting ready to take to our board revised graduation targets. Why? Because when we set the strategic plan, we didn’t know what our graduation success was going to be last year. So we’ve already exceeded the target that we set for this year. So rather than sit back, we’re going to bring even more aggressive targets to our board of education for their consideration. So we don’t want to scale back on the accountability, we don’t want to scale back on the plan, but at the end of the day you have to match your budget to your strategic plan, to your business plan. And so if the cuts are significant enough, we would have to do that. Hope we don’t have to, though.
If the governor’s program is adopted more or less intact, what are the consequences for the state in terms of education?
I think we start with the fact that, you know, somewhere between 36 and 42 percent of our budget [was] cut over the last four years, and in my impression the system becomes a smaller, more restrictive institution, probably more highly competitive [for students trying to gain admission] and we put at risk the access mission that we have protected for years.
What’s wrong with a tuition hike?
Nothing is wrong with a reasonable tuition hike. …
What is the tuition hike that is being expected of the system?
There haven’t been any expectations raised, and to be honest with you, this is another problem that I have with this whole approach. I don’t just assume that the solution to the problem is, Charge the students more. And I think that’s the other issue that you’ve got to consider when you look at the governor’s budget. No only is it cutting $162 million out of the system over this biennium, but it’s resetting the base at that lower level. So you’ve got to answer yourself two questions. Number one, how do I get from here to there? And number two, how do I survive there? So we’ve got to not only make smart cuts, if those cuts obtain, but we’ve got to build a system that can be sustained over time. And so I think looking at higher tuition could be part of it, but I think that the regents, presidents and I are going to have to look at the whole spectrum of higher education and how it’s offered in the state.
You used the term “unaffordable” in your legislative testimony the other day. I assume that means you believe that they’re expecting a level of tuition hike that you don’t think is sustainable.
Well, again, Dennis, you started out by saying, “What’s wrong with a tuition hike?” and I indicated, “Nothing, as long as it was reasonable.” But I think we’ve got to keep one other thing in mind, and that is that we have a very low level of financial aid in this state. We also have a state law that provides for low fees to Nevada residents, so what people are talking about here is ending that low fee policy and at the same time decoupling it from the fact that we have very low financial aid. If we do that and just let tuition float to a market level, we know that very many people will be cut out of the higher education mix.
In my first question I said, “What are the consequences to the state?” Talk to me about the consequences in terms of economic development.
It makes it extremely difficult for us to participate in efforts to diversify our system and our economy. What I think most folks who look at these issues agree on is that a vibrant system of higher education is very important to attracting and retaining the types of businesses that will diversify and develop our economy. And I just don’t see how we are full partners in that at the same time when we’re cutting $162 million out of our budget.
Is this a tightrope for you? You need to work with this governor for at least four years but you also have, right now, the role of criticizing his program.
Well, you know, I don’t think that’s a tightrope because I’ve made it very clear that I will not attack the governor, who I think is a good person and who I want to be wildly successful. And I certainly will not attack his motives. But I will speak very forcefully on what the impact of his budget is, and I think so long as that is done in a fact-based and professional way, that people understand that that’s what my job is.
I hadn’t intended to ask you this, but since you brought this up, why do you think Nevada, in particular, has such a low level of financial aid?
It’s just historical. I mean, I can’t give you any particular reason for it. We just have not set aside those pockets of money. Recently, the Board of Regents—not recently, but I’d say in the last decade, the Board of Regents has set aside a portion of every tuition increase for financial aid and mostly for need-based financial aid and that has helped. But it certainly has not fulfilled the need.
Is that also true of the private sector? … Do we have a lower level of financial aid from the private sector?
Well, I think we do just because of our age. I mean, we’re a young system. The University of Nevada, Reno’s been around for over a hundred years but if you look at UNLV, it celebrated its fiftieth birthday a couple of years ago. The community colleges are 40 years old. We’re a very, very young system and so our endowments are not the same size as other either private institutions or older public institutions or older public institutions like, say, Michigan or Virginia.
Correction: After reviewing Chancellor Klaich’s legislative testimony, we found he did not actually use the term “unaffordable.” That term was a paraphrase used in some news reports to characterize his meaning.