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May 23, 2015

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J. Patrick Coolican:

Not so neighborly: Group essentially says, ‘Schoolchildren: not in my backyard’

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Leila Navidi

Lori Bossy, the director of Montessori Visions Academy, reads to students Leila Armstrong, from left, 5, Matthew MacDougall, 6, and Posie Armstrong, 3, at the school in Las Vegas on Wednesday, June 6, 2012.

Montessori Visions Academy

Lori Bossy, the director of Montessori Visions Academy, reads to students at the school in Las Vegas on Wednesday, June 6, 2012. Launch slideshow »
J. Patrick Coolican

J. Patrick Coolican

Montessori Visions Academy

Sometimes it’s hard not to feel like we live in a ridiculous town.

In the latest example, Clark County has put the squeeze on a Montessori school — a Montessori school! — to appease unhappy neighbors, so the school has decided to pack up and leave.

Montessori Visions Academy, which has a location in unincorporated Clark County and another in Henderson, says the schools follow the Montessori teaching philosophy, “designed to support in the development of the whole person, build a sense of community and ignite a lifelong love of learning.”

The story of their departure from the county blends a dash of incompetence with a tendency to listen to the loudest voices, be they reasonable or not. In Las Vegas, NIMBYism — “Not in my backyard” — now applies not just to low-income housing or gas stations, but also, apparently, to schools.

The story is a little complicated, but let me boil it down.

In 1999, Lori Bossy and her sister bought a preschool on Sunset Road near the intersection with Pecos Road and operated their new school under the existing use permit. They wanted to start a private elementary school, as well, so they filed for a permit to do so with Clark County.

In the spring of 2002, Bossy filed for an extension of her permit, for the preschool and elementary school. She thought she received approval. Unfortunately, the county messed up and — unbeknown to the school and even the county itself — gave approval for the preschool but not the elementary school.

As a county staffer wrote recently, “Due to a miscommunication, a separate extension of the application for the private (elementary) school was not processed; therefore, the application expired.”

Still, no one was the wiser, and they operated the preschool and elementary school up to eighth grade, with a sign advertising as such, without complaint for years.

The real problems seem to have begun in the spring of 2009, when the school mulled plans to purchase a vacant lot two doors to the east for future expansion from preschool through a Montessori high school. By high school, we’re not talking Green Valley High School. We’re talking a handful of students, like 10. The neighbors voiced opposition. By neighbors, we’re not talking about the auto parts stores and restaurants and K-Mart that line Sunset, one of the busiest commercial thoroughfares in the entire valley. We’re mostly talking about the ones who live along Happy Lane, a private street that serves an oddly rural, secluded enclave behind the school. And by “neighbors,” we don’t necessarily mean actual neighbors. We mean people who live nearby.

Ultimately, the school backed down on the expansion plan. And you might think that at least the school’s status quo, serving preschool and elementary school-age children, would be respected.

But the problems continued. The school made an ill-advised attempt to move some students to an office building next door and built a gate in a wall between the two properties without a county permit, which led to a notice of violation before the school reversed itself.

Then in spring 2010, the county realized it permitted the preschool but not the elementary school back in 2002. Even though this was the county’s mistake, they still hit the school with a violation notice and prepared to shut it down.

In what it characterized as a “compromise,” the Clark County Commission allowed them to finish the school year. Shutting down a school and telling them to find someplace else to go strikes me as an edict, not a compromise.

The school was cleaved in two, with the preschool remaining on Sunset while the elementary school found a less-than-ideal location in Henderson a few streets away.

In the spring of 2010, when they were operating together, the preschool and K-8 schools had a combined enrollment of about 135 students. Now they have 28 in Henderson and 33 full time at its Sunset Road location. You can imagine the logistical problems of trying to manage two locations at once.

Click to enlarge photo

The view from the back lot of Montessori Visions Academy towards the houses on Happy Lane in Las Vegas on Wednesday, June 6, 2012.

Bossy blames the drop in enrollment on the economy, but also the turmoil.

Once Bossy determined that the county made the mistake back in 2002, she went back to try again for an elementary school to join the existing preschool. She wanted to bring all her students together into one school community.

In April, the commission sided with school opponents and would only allow kindergarten through third grade.

Now, Bossy has given up on the county and will move the entire operation to Henderson.

“All I want to do is educate children,” Bossy said.

I spoke with a neighbor who lives behind the school and is a school opponent. She dislikes an unsightly modular building in the back of the school and believes Bossy has violated county codes and can’t be trusted.

The level of vitriol and personal attack aimed at Bossy during the county hearing was intense. Even if we were to believe the worst about Bossy, that she knowingly cut corners to avoid the county’s heavy hand — which Bossy vehemently denies — I still have to question how people could be so passionately opposed to a small private school. She’s not running a chemical plant.

My favorite was complaints about kids using neighbor yards as shortcuts to get to school. I thought that was a childhood rite of passage. Not anymore, apparently. (In fact, running through anyone’s yard in Nevada can get you shot, so I strongly recommend you don’t do so.)

The opponent said she quite simply doesn’t want to live so close to a school. There are too many children and too many after-school functions, she said.

A different neighbor on Happy Lane told me she liked hearing the sound of kids playing.

County Commissioner Steve Sisolak was the opponents’ chief ally. He said the school created a quality of life issue for some neighbors and that the complaints of neighbors must be heard.

Fine, but why does it seem like all that’s ever required is 20 loud people to dictate policy, no matter how disruptive their demands on the rights of other property owners?

I asked Sisolak at what point schoolkids became so toxic. His response: “It used to be people wanted to live by schools and parks. They don’t anymore.”

May the school and its students prosper in Henderson.

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