EDITORIAL: School Board to take up construction question

The Clark County School District is managing crowded schools about as well as it can without asking for more tax money. That will change next month.

At its Feb. 5 work session, the School Board is expected to formally address the system’s near-term construction needs, which, at a minimum, include several new elementary schools. And the quickest way for trustees to secure the funds necessary for those projects is to place a ballot question before voters in November.

The school district tried that approach in 2012. Just 14 months ago, Clark County voters overwhelmingly rejected a property tax increase that would have funded about $700 million worth of school construction and renovations. Voters might be surprised to know that had that plan been approved, the School Board very likely would have had to put before voters another property tax increase regardless.

That’s because the 2012 question was formulated following a period of stable enrollment. The Great Recession paused the school district’s enrollment growth, just as the system ran out of capital funds from a previous bond.

Now enrollment, at about 315,000, is growing again. According to conservative projections, the school district will add between 8,000 and 16,000 students by 2018. Elementary schools’ permanent facilities (not including portable classrooms) already are about 13 percent over capacity, and the system has no money to build new schools.

The political problem of asking voters to raise taxes on themselves, in the same election they’ll decide a margins tax initiative qualified by the state teachers union to boost schools’ operating budgets, must be weighed against the political and practical problems of doing nothing. As reported Friday by the Review-Journal’s Trevon Milliard, the school district recently notified families at 39 elementary schools that their campuses might be converted from nine-month to year-round calendars starting next fall as a result of crowding. Meanwhile, several parts of town are undergoing dramatic redrawings of attendance zone boundaries to minimize crowding.

Another important consideration for trustees: Even if voters approved a construction question this fall, new schools wouldn’t be finished before 2017. If a ballot question is pushed back to 2016, new schools wouldn’t open before 2019. By then, the school district almost certainly would have to adopt radical anti-crowding measures at some schools, such as double sessions.

The 2012 defeat of the district’s tax increase provided lessons to trustees. Foremost among them: Don’t get greedy. Take whatever amount of “critical” needs the system identifies, then ask for much less. Resist calls to tear down and replace older schools. And above all, develop a parallel plan to address the district’s woeful building maintenance backlog, which drives up capital spending when equipment and structures fall into such disrepair they must be replaced. Enlist the help of the business community in addressing maintenance needs.

This is a crucial community conversation, because none of the school district’s major achievement initiatives can move forward without adequate classroom space. A construction question can’t wait.