The Clark County School Board is justifiably cautious about placing any kind of school construction question on November’s ballot. Just 15 months ago, two-thirds of voters rejected a property tax increase that would have funded hundreds of millions of dollars worth of school upgrades and a few new campuses. Has the valley’s economic and political climate changed enough since then to gain a 20-point swing in support? Such a shift would be an election miracle.
But trustees, who met Thursday to discuss facility needs, must quickly come to terms with another reality: Doing nothing is not an option. The school district’s enrollment is growing again, and elementary schools already are well over the capacity of their permanent buildings. New home construction, especially in the southwest valley, has left campuses with unmanageable populations.
Part of the trustees’ calculus in holding off on a ballot question appears to be the presence of a competing education tax question. The Nevada State Education Association has placed a margins tax initiative on November’s ballot, and the business community will mount an aggressive campaign against it. However, if the school district waits until 2016 to present voters with some kind of construction bond, and voters approve it, new schools couldn’t open before 2021, district Chief Financial Officer Jim McIntosh told trustees.
If trustees decide to wait two years before asking voters for a property tax increase, they must come up with an alternative plan to add classroom space in the near-term. And that plan must go far beyond ordering hundreds of additional portable buildings, converting some campuses to year-round calendars and potentially instituting double sessions at other schools.
The School Board should immediately explore leasing empty office buildings and converting them into schools, or seek proposals from the valley’s real estate industry to build new schools at private-sector expense and lease them, with an option to buy them at a later date. Such deals are nothing new in Southern Nevada. Clark County Sheriff Doug Gillespie brokered such a deal to build a new headquarters for the Metropolitan Police Department on Martin Luther King Boulevard.
Several charter schools lease their buildings. One benefit of leasing classroom space: a lack of maintenance costs. The school district does a terrible job taking care of its buildings.
If the School Board won’t even hear such options, it would signal to parents and taxpayers that trustees are more interested in inflicting pain to leverage tax increases. That won’t go over well with voters.