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Pahrump school, victim of recession, to close

For years, Southern Nevada couldn’t build schools fast enough to keep up with rapid growth in the Las Vegas Valley and outlying communities.

Now recession and population decline in the region have sent a school into mothballs for the first time.

School Board members in Nye County voted Tuesday night to close Mt. Charleston Elementary in Pahrump at the end of the school year. Tumbling enrollment and a shrinking budget prompted the unanimous decision.

Superintendent Rob Roberts said the widely scattered Nye County School District has lost almost 600 students since 2006, including 385 students in grades K-5.

"That’s an elementary school right there," he said.

The district’s official enrollment count for this year came in at 5,933, which is 234 students fewer than the year before. Roberts said that will mean $1.5 million less in state funding during the 2011-12 school year, not counting any cuts that may come out of the upcoming legislative session.

By closing Mt. Charleston Elementary School and eliminating about seven jobs, the district expects to save $140,000 a year in utility costs and more than $625,000 in salaries. The school’s 419 students and all of its teachers will be transferred to one of the four remaining elementary schools in Pahrump, a town of about 38,000 people 60 miles west of Las Vegas.

This was no easy decision, Roberts said: "It’s an excellent school with a senior staff."

Tim Wombaker has been the school’s principal for 10 years. He said some staff members are taking the news better than others.

"It’s hard to separate a group that’s been together for so long and done so many great things," he said.

Ultimately, though, most everyone seems to understand the reality of the situation, Wombaker said. "We need teachers more than we need buildings."

Under state law, any Nye County resident who opposes the closure has 30 days to file a written request for the School Board to reconsider its decision.

After that, the closure can be challenged in court, though Roberts said he doesn’t expect it to come to that. People seem to understand the financial bind the district is in, he said.

Without the school closure or some other cost-cutting move, the district would have been forced to lay off about 24 teachers, Roberts said.

"But it’s not to say teachers won’t lose their jobs when the governor and the Legislature unveil the budget cuts they plan to drop on us," he added.

School Board members briefly considered closing Mt. Charleston last year, but they rejected the idea because it was too late in the school year.

The school was built hastily and on the cheap in 1994 to relieve the town’s two existing elementary schools.

At the time, it looked like a possible blueprint for addressing rapid growth in small districts with limited financial resources: the disposable school.

Mt. Charleston is made up of 16 modular classroom buildings arrayed in an oval around a central building that serves as the lunchroom and gym.

The design allowed the district to squeeze an extra school out of an earlier bond issue. Wombaker said the facility cost about $2 million, including furniture and equipment.

"It served its purpose. It housed those kids for 15 or 16 years," Roberts said. "But it’s very expensive to operate."

Each modular classroom building has its own heater and air conditioning unit. The multipurpose building at the center of the campus does not have a kitchen, so school lunches have to be brought in from another school.

Roberts said Mt. Charleston’s power bill alone totals about $76,000 a year, roughly $20,000 more than that of a similarly sized, brick-and-mortar school.

The plan right now is to mothball the school in case it is needed in the future, but Roberts hinted that it might never reopen.

"If someone wanted to lease it out or buy it, we would certainly entertain that," he said.

Until the bottom fell out of the housing market, Pahrump was driving the recent growth in Nye County, as the town emerged as an affordable retirement spot and a bedroom community to Las Vegas.

But the growth came in fits and starts, especially in schools. When Roberts was hired in 2002, the district was in the midst of a major budget reduction that cost almost two dozen teachers their jobs.

Then growth in Pahrump surged again, prompting a successful bond issue in 2007 to build three new elementary schools and expand and renovate the town’s only high school.

This marks the first public school closure in Southern Nevada resulting from sagging enrollment, though Nye County did shutter one of its two elementary schools in the Central Nevada town of Tonopah last year.

In recent years, Clark County School Board members have rejected proposals to close the elementary schools at Goodsprings and on Mount Charleston. No such closures are currently being discussed.

"Right now, it’s not on the radar," said Michael Rodriguez, spokesman for the Clark County School District.

School enrollment in Clark County inched up by about 500 students this year, but it remains below its peak of 311,240 during the 2008-09 school year.

The 2009-10 school year marked the first time the nation’s fifth-largest school district experienced an enrollment decline since the 1983-84 school year.

Contact reporter Henry Brean at hbrean@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0350.

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