Dilapidated schools lack funds for costly repairs

The 58-year-old school floods when it rains, water gushing through storm drains.

A pool of rainwater broke through a classroom roof in September. The ceiling’s ruined panels are still missing, said Principal Christine Ahrens, standing inside the stuffy eighth-grade classroom.

It’s either blasting heat or icy air conditioning for students and staff at J.D. Smith Middle School, near Owens Avenue and Bruce Street.

"Well, we pray the AC is on full blast," she said during a tour of the school. When the AC is down in the summer, staff buys Popsicles for students. "Anything to keep kids cool."

Smith will have to live with these issues for a minimum of five years. That goes for all Clark County School District campuses dealing with uncomfortable but not unsafe conditions.

"We’re looking at a few rough years of hanging by a thread," said Associate Superintendent of Facilities Paul Gerner, who is in the position of telling schools that only those facing the worst conditions will receive costly repairs and replacements.

That is because the district needs $5.1 billion over the next decade just to maintain schools in their current conditions. But the district doesn’t have anything near that amount, district Chief Financial Officer Jeff Weiler said. The district is relying on less than $100 million in leftover bond money to fund only the most essential capital projects that may arise. That is 2 percent of what the district needs.

"We’re pinching every penny, asking schools to limp along," Weiler said.

The district is in such dire straits because it relied on the 1998 bond program not only to build 101 schools to accommodate Clark County’s unprecedented growth throughout the past decade but to pay for renovations too. A third of the bond, which brought in $4.9 billion over 12 years, was used to renovate and modernize 229 existing schools. Also, $1.6 billion was used to replace older schools.

With that funding flow cut off, the district’s facilities division is sputtering along on the last of the bond’s lingering fumes. The bond’s end has revealed a tremendous shortfall in maintenance funding, said Gerner, who warned the district a couple of years ago that it could happen.

"The bond hid that sin for so many years," he said.

The district spends $1.12 per square foot in maintenance, short of the $1.71 industry standard, according to the Council of Great City Schools. If the district met that mark, it would have $22 million more annually for maintenance, said Randy Shingleton, director of the maintenance department.

But the district doesn’t have any money to funnel into repairs and replacements, especially not $5.1 billion, and it can’t simply look to another bond, said Weiler.

That’s because the district’s debt for the schools it built under the 1998 program now exceeds its revenue, which has declined because of the bad economy. Officials don’t expect that to change for at least five years as property values remain flat, meaning no increase in money from property taxes and no additional bonding capacity.

If anything, property values could drop more, Weiler said. That translates to a tough task for Gerner’s division.

"If nothing changes, we see a real different next few years trying to survive," Gerner said.

Normally, the district would have put another bond before voters after the last one expired. But the School Board held off in 2008 because of the economy, waiting for an improvement that would have given the bond a better chance of passing. The School Board held off again in 2010. Now, the district’s back is against the wall. The board is looking for an alternative to another long-term bond.

"We can’t wait five years," said School Board member Lorraine Alderman at Thursday’s meeting, noting that J.D. Smith needs help now. "This is disconcerting. The needs are many, and there are no resources."

About 20 schools are in worse condition than the district would like, said Timothy Strucely, a facilities division director, noting that the average school’s age is 22 years.

Though that is just a fraction of the district’s 357 schools, that number will quickly grow as preventive maintenance is put off, Gerner said. Only about 10 percent of maintenance staff’s work is preventive, Shingleton said. It should be 70 percent because it’s much cheaper to keep roofs, climate-control systems and plumbing in working order than fixing them after they break, which is how it’s being done now.

For that reason, the School Board asked staff Thursday to come back with a short-term funding source suggestion for the next five years.

In the meantime, Principal Ahren realizes the well’s running dry and her teachers will have to make do.

"It’s not that they (the district) is ignoring us," she said, remarking on how repair crews responded immediately after rain broke through a classroom roof. "You can’t pull a rabbit out of a hat."

Contact reporter Trevon Milliard at tmilliard@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0279.

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