It’s a busy summer for Paul Fredrickson’s construction company. Under the broiling heat, his crews are building five charter schools, including two in Henderson.
It’s the height of a trend that’s been growing for years.
Besides the two scheduled to open this fall, another four charter schools have been proposed in Henderson — including one whose backers hope to open in 2016.
Even as officials begin preparing to split up the mammoth Clark County School District in a few years, Henderson is already creating what amounts to its own miniature school system.
Much to elected officials’ frustration, the city doesn’t control when public schools are built within its borders.
Sites set aside by developers for new schools have sat empty for years. Thanks to limited funding, the district hasn’t built a new school — anywhere — since 2010.
That has created headaches everywhere, especially in a place growing as fast as Henderson, which is now Nevada’s second largest city. Its population has increased by about 100,000, or more than 50 percent, since 2000.
So the city and developers have worked to lure private schools along with charters, which are public but privately built and run.
City records show three new charter schools were approved in 2011 and one each year from 2012 to 2015.
Two huge new planned housing developments, Cadence and Inspirada, are adding charters. One of those sites, home to a new Pinecrest Academy campus in Inspirada, was originally slated for a new Clark County School District campus.
“It’s exciting to see schools being built at a time when maybe the public school system can’t deliver, but we can get the private sector to come forward,” City Councilwoman Debra March said during a May meeting.
A new law will let the public school district borrow more than $4 billion over the next decade to start building schools again. The district will add two elementary schools in Henderson in the next three years.
But given Henderson’s growing population and already crowded schools, don’t expect the charter boom to end any time soon.
‘NOT MY LAST’
Yolanda Hamilton hardly needed the bright orange safety vest she wore on a recent tour of the Pinecrest Inspirada construction site.
The principal’s orange polo shirt — reflecting her choice to join blue as a school color — provided plenty of visibility as she got her first glimpse inside her school.
“I wanted windows!” Hamilton said, happy to see the sun streaming into her office.
Fredrickson’s company, Nevada General Construction, is building this and four other schools this summer for Academica Nevada, a charter school management company.
The turnaround time has been remarkable.
The city only voted to allow a charter school on the Inspirada site in November. The site didn’t get permits until late March. But it will be open Aug. 24.
“(Charter schools are) easier to get completed and approved and through the system much faster than a Clark County school,” said Eddie Dichter, a principal planner for the city.
That’s partly because, as a public agency, the school system has to weigh the needs of 320,000 students and an entire county.
The 57,000-square-foot Pinecrest school at Inspirada will open with 700 children between kindergarten and seventh grade, and it will add eighth grade in 2016. Within a few years, it could have 1,000 to 1,200 students.
Fredrickson and his colleague Butch Coffey showed Hamilton’s group around the two-story school: the music room with double insulation to muffle sound, a science room, a computer classroom.
The main entrance features a sunny atrium, and there are large windows in many rooms to allow natural light in.
Hamilton liked the bright blue walls, which she said will create a much happier atmosphere than institutional white paint.
Coffey, the job site superintendent, said this is his first time building a charter school for Academica.
“Hopefully not my last,” he added.
It won’t be, Fredrickson assured him.
For years, Henderson required developers to set aside land for the Clark County School District. And then it waited.
“We’ve got land that is still donated, that is still sitting there, that hasn’t been built on,” Councilman John Marz said.
This year, the city made a small but crucial change: Instead of requiring developers to set aside land for the school district, it now simply requires land for schools.
In essence, Marz said, whoever can build first gets the land.
The school district has 40 schools in Henderson, a number that hasn’t kept pace with population growth.
For the past five years, after it lost a key bonding authority, the district simply didn’t have the money to build, Chief Financial Officer Jim McIntosh said.
“We would love to build in some of these areas,” he said, speaking of the growing parts of Henderson. “We really need to be able to build in some of these areas.”
This year, the Nevada Legislature gave the school district authority that McIntosh said will let it borrow $4.1 billion over 10 years.
The first crop of 12 schools built using that money will include two elementary schools in Henderson — one in Tuscany and one in Inspirada. But they won’t open until 2017 and 2018, respectively.
The new elementary schools will help. But Henderson also has some of the county’s most overcrowded middle and high schools, McIntosh said.
And those who are building new homes now don’t want to wait.
“We as the developer … know we’re going to be adding all these children into the community. The surrounding schools are at or near capacity,” said Cheryl Persinger, marketing vice president for the Cadence development. “We’re going to need the schools, so we’re trying to be proactive rather than reactive.”
Besides the Pinecrest charter school, Cadence has donated land for a new Lake Mead Christian Academy campus. Both are planned for fall 2016.
‘EVEN MORE INVOLVED’
When the school site at Inspirada became open, Academica Nevada jumped at it.
“The biggest obstacle for any charter school is always property,” said Ryan Reeves, the company’s chief operating officer.
The usual cost for an Academica school is about $12 million, but the Inspirada campus should be cheaper because the land cost less. School officials wouldn’t discuss details.
Charter schools don’t charge tuition. Instead, they get public money for each pupil they enroll, and they can borrow money to build schools based on that anticipated cash.
Asked why charter schools have grown so fast in Henderson, Reeves said: “One, it’s demand; it’s the parents of Henderson wanting to have school choice. And two, it’s the Henderson government and the developers that are working there being willing to work with us.”
For developers, the motivation is obvious: Good schools — especially nearby — are a huge selling point to homebuyers.
For decades, Henderson residents and politicians have pushed for their own public school district, usually to no avail. The City Council voted to support a school district breakup in 1997, the Las Vegas Sun reported at the time. But that and other breakup pushes died partly because of concerns smaller districts would exacerbate racial and economic disparities within Clark County.
This year, citing the importance of local control, the Henderson council again voted unanimously to support splitting up the school district. A bill supported by Gov. Brian Sandoval and passed by the Legislature requires a committee to figure out how to create smaller districts that will go into effect in 2018.
And in the meantime, Henderson will continue pushing for new schools — whoever wants to build them.
“We’ve long had an interest and involvement in education in Henderson,” Mayor Andy Hafen said in his State of the City address this year, “and we are excited that there may be opportunities for us to be even more involved than we’ve been in the past.”