EDITORIAL: Booming enrollment worsens school district’s space problems

The Clark County School District’s space crunch suddenly is far worse than expected. And it was expected to be pretty darn bad when the new academic year started this morning.

Superintendent Pat Skorkowsky told the Review-Journal’s editorial board Thursday that more than 320,000 students are expected to arrive at elementary, middle, high school and alternative campuses today. That’s 5,000 more students than were enrolled at the start of last year — enough children to fill a couple of new high schools or six or seven new elementary schools — and 3,000 more students than were enrolled in June.

Only there are no new schools, just as there were no new schools last year. The district has no capital funding to spend on school construction.

School officials were expecting an additional 1,500 students for the start of this year. Instead, they’ll get at least twice that number. And it’s normal in Southern Nevada for even more families to show up for the first day of class to enroll on the spot.

And then there’s the additional 2,000 (or more) students who will enroll at schools throughout the new year. It’s entirely possible that the school district will have an enrollment of close to 323,000 students by June 2015. For additional perspective on this number, consider that just nine months ago, the school district was projecting annual enrollment growth of between 0.5 and 1 percent over the next five years. Conservative estimates had enrollment reaching 323,000 by 2018.

That number will arrive about three years sooner than expected. The school district’s enrollment growth rate is 2 percent. That’s a pre-recession figure.

The School Board decided against placing a construction issue on November’s ballot, largely because voters overwhelmingly rejected such a measure in 2012, and this year’s election already features a tax question for schools: Question 3, the business margins tax. Trustees are expected to ask voters in 2016 for a bond extension, but even if it’s approved the first wave of new schools wouldn’t be complete until 2019. By then, the Clark County School District could have 350,000 students.

The school district and its students can’t wait that long for a solution, and elementary schools can only hold so many portable buildings. So Mr. Skorkowsky is pressing for creative solutions for next year. He already has announced a magnet school expansion that should help fill under-capacity schools while relieving crowding elsewhere. And now the district is exploring moving pre-kindergarten and early education programs out of traditional elementary schools and into vacant commercial or office space, creating more room for K-5 classes.

This newspaper has urged as much. If commercial and office space is good enough for charter schools, it’s good enough for the district. Full speed ahead on that front.

Today’s crush of students comes just in time for the fall sprint to November’s election. Every legislative candidate should be thinking about what they can do during the 2015 session to address this problem: exempting school construction projects from overpriced prevailing wages; allocating some general fund revenue for capital projects; and addressing the poor maintenance of existing buildings. Clark County families and schools can’t wait five years for relief.