Nevada Voters Shoot Down Schools Tax

Nevada Voters Shoot Down Schools Tax
November 12, 2012

LAS VEGAS—Nevada voters in the nation’s fifth-largest school district rejected a 21 cent property-tax increase school trustees said was necessary to repair and modernize 41 schools.

Clark County School District’s plans for spending the tax-increase money frequently and significantly differed from its public talking points. Voters apparently noticed: it was the first time since the 1980s they had rejected a school-repair-labeled tax increase the district requested.

“The district needs to repair or replace critical infrastructure,” said district officials in a pre-election press release, “such as air conditioning, heating, plumbing, electrical and security systems at some of CCSD's older schools.”

The money would have gone for upgrades at 18 schools, replacing six schools' heating and cooling systems, upgrading 10 electrical systems, building four school gyms, replacing two schools and building two new schools to alleviate crowding. All the proposals combined, however, would have impacted just 13 percent of the district’s 311,000 students.

Doubling Gyms
The proposed initiative included constructing gyms at high schools that already have gyms—while other schools, with more pressing needs, went lacking. In some cases, the differences between plans and needs were stark.

The “capital needs” list  trustees approved in May and offered to justify their tax-increase campaign specifies new gymnasiums for four high schools that already have gyms. These were projected to cost $11.9 million each.

For comparison, the University of Nevada Las-Vegas’s massive, new Mendenhall Center, a 38,000 sq. foot, state-of-the-art gymnasium comparable with facilities at Duke and Louisville, cost $11.6 million.

Heating, Air Neglected
Yet schools such as Pat Diskin Elementary—where in September a failure of its heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning (HVAC) system forced the school’s closure—did not make the list.

Diskin, built in 1973, was not among the seven schools named on the district “needs” list for complete HVAC-system replacement. All of those schools were built in the early 1990s.

For example, Grant Sawyer Middle School, built in 1993, received a $10 million HVAC overhaul just four years ago, yet was on the district’s “needs” list to receive an $8.8 million replacement. And Greenspun Middle School, built in 1991, received a $1.9 million HVAC upgrade in 2009, according to CCSD records, yet it too was slated for an $8.8 million upgrade.

When the Clark County Debt Management Committee met on June 7, other schools were cited as in dire need of repair. One was Lois Craig Elementary in North Las Vegas. It was not on the “needs” list.

Maintenance Deferred, Luxuries Bought
School district staff “have deferred maintenance and deferred maintenance to where they go out to Lois Craig and take duct tape to hold up conduits for refrigeration and put plywood to hold up the damn steps to the portables,” County Commissioner Tom Collins told committee colleagues. 

Collins, who won reelection handily in November, was influential in adding a second gym for Moapa Valley High to the “needs” list.

West Prep has 25 portable buildings for 400 elementary-school students, and school advocates have been trying to get a new building since 2006. West Prep wasn’t included in previous improvement plans but was finally listed to receive a $12 million “complete conversion.”

CCSD estimates converting a 400-student elementary school will cost only $100,000 more than a new high school gym.

Parents, Students Complained
Parents and students brought Gibson Middle School to the board’s attention. During a Feb. 24, 2011 meeting, students complained of roof leaks, plumbing backups, and unsafe floors.

“I bet you don’t have to deal with old plumbing in your building,” a Gibson student told the board during the meeting, a reference to the district’s $14.5 million administrative building, frequently referred to as “The Pink Palace.” It has tiled showers, marble floors, and remote-controlled curtains.

“From the outside, things might look functional, but you never really know what’s going on, on the inside,” said Trustee Lorraine Alderman in May. “[With] a lot of these older buildings ... the walls are still sturdy but the air conditioning’s not working, the roofs need [replacing].”

Paying Twice
Basic High School, which has received $28 million in renovations since 1994, including a $2.3 million gym addition, was targeted to receive another $27 million from the new tax.

By comparison, five elementary schools slated for “major modernizations” under the new tax would each have received less than the cost of the planned gyms.

Many schools on the list were scheduled to receive money to repair problems supposedly fixed with previous bond money. Thirteen schools were listed as needing “electrical system upgrades” ranging from $700,000 to $2.1 million. Ten had already received money for “electrical upgrades” from previous capital improvement plans.

Beckley Elementary received a total of $421,665 in electrical upgrades from the 1994 and 1998 plans, and McWillians Elementary received $257,961 from the 1998 plan. Culley Elementary received $604,935 from the 1998 plan, but was listed to receive another $700,000 from the proposed 2012 plan.

The district launched a “multimedia advertising campaign” consisting of 250,000 mailers, several community meetings, and door-to-door efforts promoting the tax increase.

The tax initiative would have raised property taxes another 21 cents per $100 of assessed valuation.

Kyle Gillis is a reporter for Nevada Journal, a publication of the Nevada Policy Research Institute. Nevada Journal's Karen Gray contributed to this report, which is adapted from Nevada Journal with permission.

Image by Ratha Grimes.