Durango High School to reopen Thursday; school disrepair a problem for board

Durango High School will reopen Thursday after a day-and-a-half closure because of air-conditioning problems. But the troubles aren’t over at the southwest valley high school or others across Clark County School District with failing parts.

“We’re in a major crisis,” said School Board member Linda Young in a Wednesday meeting of district leaders addressing the lack of funding to maintain and replace schools’ failing but essential infrastructure. “We need to come up with a serious plan.”

One of Durango’s two air conditioners, which have been patched together, failed again Wednesday afternoon shortly after officials announced both were up and running, causing workers to go back and repair it in time for classes today. Workers have been struggling since June to make the cooling system operational at the 20-year-old school near Rainbow Boulevard and Russell Road, School Board President Carolyn Edwards said.

The district is already planning for another breakdown today, declaring that Durango students would stay until 10:40 a.m. to meet the minimum requirement for counting the day, and then be sent home.

Durango’s problem comes just seven days into class, marking the beginning of a school year that may be marred by a “major challenge,” in the words of Superintendent Pat Skorkowsky, to merely keep schools operational in the already academically struggling district.

“This won’t be the last emergency,” board member Chris Garvey said.

However, district officials revealed to the School Board, they don’t have the money to maintain equipment at Durango or elsewhere in the 357-school district. Just triage and tend to those in the most critical condition.

In the meantime, Durango students must make up lost time on Nov. 4, which all other Clark County students have off so teachers can receive professional development. But there are only four training days. If any more time is missed, the school won’t have the 180 days of required instruction, possibly forcing Durango to extend the school year. Moving Durango students ‑— or those of any inoperable high school — to another school isn’t an option, Skorkowsky said.

“I can’t move 2,400 kids to another site (school) and have any semblance of instruction,” he said.

The alternative: replace Durango’s cooling system. But doing that costs $5 million to $8 million per school. The district only has $44 million remaining from its 1998 bond program, which netted $4.9 billion for capital projects. Capital projects must be for buying equipment or constructing buildings with at least five-year life spans. The 20-year bond from 1998 mostly went to building 101 new schools during the Las Vegas boom.

A $44 million budget for capital projects in a district with 357 schools is “not sustainable,” especially since no new funding is expected this year or next, district Chief Financial Officer Jeff Weiler said.

“We’re sinking fast,” Young responded.

That $44 million would only cover five air-conditioning systems, and the needs of aging schools extend beyond air conditioning, which is why the School Board decided to ask voters in 2012 for a six-year property-tax increase yielding $669 million.

The vote was 2-1 against the district’s request.

“It was the most resounding defeat I’ve ever seen,” said Associate Superintendent Joyce Haldeman who led many of the district’s previous bond campaigns and the effort to inform voters about the proposed tax increase.

“People don’t have a lot of confidence in our school district’s spending,” Young said.

“We need to put out a better effort,” added Edwards, noting that the district must again ask Clark County voters to fund school improvements and construction in either the 2014 or 2016 election.

But 2014 is out of the question. The state teachers union, the Nevada State Education Association, is already asking voters to approve a 2 percent margins tax on all businesses making $1 million or more annually — regardless of whether expenses exceed revenue — to benefit public schools.

Board members agreed that two requests for increased school funding on one ballot would guarantee failure.

But the 2016 general election is far off, leaving district leaders wondering Wednesday what to do in the meantime to keep schools like Durango up and running when the $44 million runs out and air conditioners can’t be patched together.

“How grim,” Edwards said.

Contact reporter Trevon Milliard at tmilliard@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0279.