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Summerlin school construction craze not because of student growth

One could easily assume that growth in Summerlin’s population has exploded after learning that three new schools, which will eventually accommodate more than 4,000 students, will be opened in the community within the next couple of years.

Wrong assumption! After some reality checking, we also learned that what’s really going on is this: Both the state and the Clark County School District are playing catch-up, and these three schools, plus more than 30 others, are being planned for Southern Nevada in the short term to help relieve some of the worst school overcrowding in the country.

No, Summerlin’s student population is not growing that rapidly. That’s not even close. Nor are homes in Summerlin being built and selling anywhere near that speedily. In fact, “the number of students entering the system this year in Summerlin is a tiny fraction of the number of seats the new schools will provide,” said Tom Warden, senior vice president of community and government relations for The Howard Hughes Corp., the developer of Summerlin.

But thanks to a school bonding bill that passed in the 2015 legislative session, with the weight of Gov. Brian Sandoval strongly behind it, construction of new schools has been unfrozen after almost a decade of inactivity.

Student overcrowding is presently so bad that there are 65 portable classrooms just in the Summerlin area. In a sense you might say that Summerlin’s school kids are lucky when compared to the rest of the county. That’s because “there are over 2,000 portable classrooms in the Clark County School District,” said Jim McIntosh, chief financial officer for the school district. Clark County is the fifth-largest school district in the country.

“The real issue is that we have had no capital program since 2008,” McIntosh added. “There is an overwhelming need to reduce overcrowding, and last year’s Legislature provided the means to do just that, to help us eliminate portable classrooms.”

Doral Academy Red Rock, a state-sponsored public charter school located near Sky Vista and Alta drives near West Charleston Boulevard, is expected to be open in time for the school year beginning next fall. It will include kindergarten through ninth grade.

“We’re planning on opening at least six new schools and one replacement school in Las Vegas by the 2017-18 school year,” said Blake Cumbers, the school district’s assistant superintendent of facilities.

The three new schools in Summerlin will be included among them.

But McIntosh explained that charter schools are not operated by the district. They fall under a different state education program. He did say that the district’s ultimate goal in its new school construction program is “to reduce student overcrowding, eliminate as many portable classrooms as possible — as soon as possible — and plan for future student growth.”

Both of the other two new elementary schools in Summerlin are planned to be open for the 2017-18 year. One will be in the Paseos Village, along Antelope Ridge Drive, and the other will be built in the Cliffs Village, near Maule Avenue and Grand Canyon Drive.

But the elimination of portable classrooms won’t happen so fast, even with new schools on the way. And the Clark County School Board made that evident last month when it announced its budget for the next academic year. Despite a lower-than-expected growth in student enrollment for next year, student-to-teacher ratios will rise by one student in some grades, adding to the woes of overcrowding. That has been attributed in part to a complex funding formula, some of which provides more dollars for students with special needs.

Speaking in support of the new schools slated for Summerlin, Warden said, “We appreciate what the Legislature did in the last session by increasing the bonding capacity, which made possible the addition of these three new schools for Summerlin.”

But he made it clear that the new schools, which will bring the total number of public and private schools in the Summerlin area to 26, are by no means due to any escalation of the sale of homes in Summerlin.

“Home sales are coming back, but they’re still nowhere near what they were before the recession,” Warden commented.

Herb Jaffe was an op-ed columnist and investigative reporter for most of his 39 years at the Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J. His most recent novel, “Double Play,” is now available. Contact him at hjaffe@cox.net.

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