Teachers, students decry Nevada budget cuts at town hall
LAS VEGAS (AP) – Gov. Brian Sandoval’s budget would cripple Nevada’s already wounded public schools, said parents, students and government workers gathered Saturday during the first public meeting on the new leader’s policies.
Sandoval did not attend the town hall in Las Vegas held by the Democratic leaders who run the Nevada Legislature. But his emerging leadership style was at the center of the occasionally boisterous meeting, where dozens of state employees, case workers and teachers slammed Sandoval’s plan to close a $1.2 billion budget gap by slashing government services.
“My heart’s out to you,” Ed McDonald, a state employee, told legislators during the meeting. “You are stuck between a governor and a hard place.”
Sandoval, who was sworn in Jan. 3, unveiled his $5.8 billion general fund budget Monday. It calls for reducing K-12 spending by $270 per student and for cutting higher education costs by nearly 18 percent. The budget also proposes a 5 percent salary cut for state workers and reduced sick leave and holiday pay.
Speakers at the hours-long meeting in Las Vegas angrily picked through the budget, with state workers lamenting cash-starved programs, too-small paychecks and overwhelmed social services.
Education issues, however, easily took the forefront as teachers and students implored lawmakers to cultivate new funding sources and protect Nevada’s struggling schools, some of the worst in the nation.
Sandoval has said education is a priority, but that he cannot increase school funding without raising taxes and hurting businesses. Nevada has the highest unemployment, foreclosure and bankruptcy rates in the nation.
Critics counter that he wants to shield the rich while exposing the poor to massive service cuts.
At the town hall, more than a dozen high school students complained of crowded buses, overworked teachers and insufficient learning materials, such as books and paper.
Patricia Quinn, a first-grade teacher at Judith D. Steele Elementary School in Las Vegas, spoke of underfunded classrooms littered with broken chairs and school books held together with tape.
“This is not a third-world country,” she said. “Our kids deserve better than this.”
The public hearing opened with more than 100 protesters waving anti-Sandoval signs outside the downtown Las Vegas state office building where the meeting was being held. Clark County officials and the Nevada State Democratic Party had encouraged supporters to turn the town hall into a demonstration.
If the town hall housed many Sandoval proponents, they largely did not speak.
Woody Stroupe, one of the few Sandoval fans to talk at the meeting, earned a disapproving “boo” when he praised the governor’s plan to reward successful educators and eliminate teacher tenure. Stroupe, 72, complained of overpaid teachers who have done little to improve student’s test scores.
Tayler Earl, a 26-year-old fourth-grade teacher in Las Vegas, also backed Sandoval’s merit pay plan for teachers, saying too many of her colleagues were earning more money than her while not putting in the same 60 hours a week that she has.
“Teachers need to know that their hard work is something that will pay off, literally,” she said.
Higher education issues were not spared during the debate, where professors and students decried proposed tuition increases.
“We are talking about literally choosing between tuition and groceries,” said Tera Burbank, a 32-year-old mother who went back to college after her job in the construction industry was eliminated.
Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford, a critic of Sandoval’s budget plan, warned residents of the looming battle that will unfold between the governor’s administration and Democratic lawmakers.
“The purpose is we want to hear your concerns and ideas regarding the governor’s proposed budget,” Horsford said at the meeting’s open. “This upcoming legislative session represents a key time in our state’s history.”
Horsford told The Associated Press after the six hours of testimony that Sandoval, business owners and high-wage earners must consider tax increases to ensure the budget is not balanced at the expense of the state’s poorest residents.
“What I heard today clearly is that people here in southern Nevada want education to be preserved,” he said. “We’ve got to take that seriously.”
Northern Nevada lawmakers also held a public budget hearing in Reno at the Washoe County commission chambers on Saturday.
Protesters held signs with messages such as “What About the Children?” ”We Need Jobs,” and “Cuts Hurt – Stop the Bleeding.”
Mary Ann Hansen of Reno, whose two daughters attend a private school where she’s an assistant teacher, said Nevada’ graduation rate, the lowest in the nation, has kept her from enrolling her children in public schools.
“I believe in public education. I want my girls to be back in the public system,” Hansen said. “But (Sandoval’s budget) shows Nevada doesn’t have children as a top priority.”
Horsford said more than 800 people showed up for the Las Vegas meeting, while 600 attended the Reno town hall.
Sandoval’s no-taxes pledge helped carry him to victory in the November election. As a candidate, he never detailed how he would fill budget holes without creating new cash flows.
Associated Press writer Martin Griffith in Reno contributed to this report.
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