District in race for more space

All the local discussions about lifting student achievement through class-size reduction, expanded full-day kindergarten, expanded pre-kindergarten and intensified English Language Learner instruction are putting the cart before the horse.

Virtually every initiative under way in the Clark County School District, nearly every strategy embraced by education leaders, teacher unions and lawmakers, requires more classroom space — way more classroom space. The system has almost no room to spare, it has no money to build new schools or expand existing ones, and it has no plan or proposal in place (beyond adding portable classrooms) to address its urgent facility needs.

Crowding was bad last year. It’s even worse this year. Within the next two years, it will be a debacle.

You can’t expand early education or kindergarten without classroom space. You can’t create more ELL “zoom schools” without classroom space. You can’t add thousands of new teaching positions without classroom space.

The country’s fifth-largest school district has an official audited enrollment of 314,643. For now, the crowding problem is largely limited to elementary schools, which, including preschool programs, have almost 138,000 students but a capacity for only 120,000. That’s 15 percent over capacity. Middle schools, on the other hand, are 11.5 percent under capacity, and high schools are 2.4 percent under capacity.

That requires the school district to use 1,625 portable classrooms, 1,282 of them at elementary schools. The district has 40 more doublewide portables (two classrooms each) on order, spokeswoman Kirsten Searer said.

The system might have to order hundreds more in the near future. The Clark County School District is projected to grow by between 0.5 and 1 percent per year over the next five years, according to Searer, and that’s a conservative estimate. It’s certainly not the kind of growth the valley witnessed before the Great Recession, but it will add up fast. It means the school district will have between 323,000 and 331,000 students by 2018 — a figure that would justify the construction of about 20 new schools.

But there’s no money and no plan. The $700 million property tax measure overwhelmingly rejected by voters last year would have covered only a few new schools and lots of renovations on existing ones. And it wouldn’t have touched the system’s growing maintenance backlog.

This is the reason the school district is redrawing attendance zones at a number of schools and considering converting many campuses to the year-round schedules most parents hate. Within a year or two, the school district will be forced to reconsider some of the really unpopular crowding solutions it rejected earlier this year: moving fifth-graders to middle schools, having elementary students attend class in morning and evening shifts, and creating schools made entirely of portable classrooms.

The message sent by voters to the district last year was pretty clear: make do with what you have. And that’s exactly what the system will do. Even if the School Board put forward another construction plan for the 2014 ballot and voters actually approved it, or the 2015 Legislature came up with some one-shot money for new campuses, the soonest the district could open any new schools would be 2017.

So the system is going to have to consider a new approach, one that’s working for several charter schools that have waiting lists: rent. This valley has a glut of vacant office space, including entire office buildings. There’s no reason more of them can’t be converted into schools.

I’m not sold on all of the big-ticket achievement initiatives listed above. Class sizes mean nothing if a classroom has an ineffective teacher. Some studies have shown any achievement gains from early education programs disappear within a few years. And right now, there’s no way to pay for any these plans, either.

But these ideas aren’t going anywhere if the school district doesn’t add classroom space first.

Glenn Cook (gcook@reviewjournal.com) is the Las Vegas Review-Journal’s senior editorial writer. Follow him on Twitter: @Glenn_CookNV. Listen to him Mondays at 4 p.m. on “Live and Local with Kevin Wall” on KXNT News Radio, 100.5 FM, 840 AM.