Clark County School Board studies $2.1 billion plan to build schools, renovate aging buildings

The Clark County School Board next month will consider a $2.1 billion plan to build 17 new elementary schools, add more classrooms to 26 overcrowded campuses and close or replace 17 aging facilities across the Las Vegas Valley.

A 13-member advisory committee Thursday unanimously endorsed a five-year plan that also calls for “critical” renovations at 19 schools, though Clark County School District officials estimate more than six times that number of schools require similar upgrades of their air conditioning, electrical, plumbing and other mechanical systems.

“There’s simply not enough funding,” said Jim McIntosh, the district’s chief financial officer.

“The pressing need really is capacity,” he added, referring to a growing student population, especially in the elementary grades. “The (school) board, when it gave its approval for the bond program, made a decision right away to build new schools as opposed to modernization of facilities.”

Working off an overarching, 10-year capital improvement plan that the board unanimously approved in September, its bond oversight committee Thursday voted to recommend a dizzying list of projects that will cost $2.14 billion and last through the 2020-21 school year.

The recommendations include redesigning three “shovel-ready” elementary schools set to open in fall 2018, finding sites for five additional elementary schools, building 14 to 22 classroom additions at 26 overcrowded schools, replacing or closing 11 dilapidated schools and more.

Gathered in the rickety gymnasium at Las Vegas Academy, the committee also struggled to balance the need to relieve overcrowded classrooms and to pay for upgrades at aging facilities across the district.

The committee favored renovating, or modernizing, the air conditioning, electrical, plumbing and other mechanical systems at 19 campuses. That alone will cost nearly $200 million but still falls more than $350 million below what district officials have identified as “critical” system updates needed at 121 additional schools.

“We really need an emphasis placed on this as we move forward,” said Blake Cumbers, assistant superintendent of facilities.

He outlined approximately $4.7 billion in modernization projects needed across the district. Trustees, however, evenly split a total $4.1 billion for construction over the next decade between new schools to focus on population growth and modernization projects, replacement schools and technology and major equipment purchases.

That leaves less than $1.1 billion on upgrades that the district places on three immediate to long-term watch lists, including a more pressing one dubbed “danger zone.”

“This is one of those things that has to stay fluid,” said District B Trustee Chris Garvey, who attended the Thursday meeting and represents northeast and parts of rural Clark County.

“You have to look at how many kids are coming into the system and where they’re coming into the system,” Garvey said. “We may see critical mass and school modernization hit us hard, and we’ll have to readjust. So, while it’s a plan, it’s a working plan.”

Before the committee’s vote, the competing interests of rural versus urban communities stole the spotlight, as residents from Mesquite pleaded for a new high school gym and teachers from inner-city Fremont Middle School begged to avoid a closure.

Chris Lounsbery, principal of Sandy Valley Junior/Senior High School, urged the committee to support a phase replacement of the rural campus and walked away happy with a vote in its favor.

“Our building has been (operating for) many, many years,” Lounsbery said.

“It’s very trying when buildings are built over 30 years, 40 years, 50 years ago,” he added. “At a small school, that creates more problems sometimes than what it’s worth.”

Other audience members who trekked all the way from Mesquite applauded after the committee voted to support a new gym at Virgin Valley High School.

Somewhat less pleased by the committee’s recommendations were two teachers from Fremont Middle School, at the corner of Maryland Parkway and St. Louis Avenue.

According to McIntosh, Fremont and the neighboring Smith Middle School are below enrollment capacity. The district plans to demolish and replace both campuses but will convert Fremont, which also houses a teacher training program, into an elementary school.

Fremont teacher Shawn Kelly questioned what the closure means for the middle school’s high population of low-income students and English language learners. He also wondered why the district would jeopardize the future of the training program as it grapples with a chronic teacher shortage.

District officials stressed that Thursday’s vote is not final, with trustees set to consider the committee’s recommendations at an April 6 work session. Any school closure also would require several public notices and hearings.

Still, Kelly plans to rally members of the Fremont community in the coming weeks.

“We hope to get this information to the feeder schools, so the parents who will have students at our school in the next two to six years know about this,” Kelly said. “We absolutely will get the word out.”

Contact Neal Morton at nmorton@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0279. Find him on Twitter: @nealtmorton

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