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School District to ask voters to OK six-year property tax increase for repairs and renovations

Updated Wednesday, May 2, 2012 | 6:48 p.m.

The Clark County School Board unanimously voted Wednesday to pursue a ballot question seeking voter approval for a six-year property tax increase to renovate and replace aging schools.

Although the exact wording of the question has yet to be determined, voters will be asked in November to allow the School District to launch a capital levy program that funds school maintenance on what the district is calling a pay-as-you-go basis.

Under the proposal, property taxes would increase about $74 annually on a house valued at $100,000 to begin funding high-priority school construction and rehabilitation projects.

The tax increase would generate $669 million over the six-year period, district officials said, assuming there are no further declines in property values past 2013. The property tax rate would return to its current rate after the six years.

After the six-year program’s end, the School District may decide to go back to voters to seek approval of a $4.7 billion bond program for further projects. Currently, the district does not expect to have the bonding capacity until 2018.

The district has identified $5.3 billion in “needs” relating to school construction and maintenance, the majority of which will need to be addressed by a major bond program, officials said.

If the $4.7 billion bond program ultimately is placed before voters and gains approval, the majority of its proceeds – about $3.4 billion – would go toward school renovation and replacements. About $1 billion would go to new technology and equipment for schools. The rest of the bond money would help build nine new schools in growing regions of the valley, and help the district strive for “educational equity” within its schools.

The School District currently has $33.5 million in funding through a 1998 bond program to fund some classroom technology and electrical upgrades, alarm and public announcement systems, and roof replacements.

The capital levy would “bridge” funding for high-need projects, officials said. The district plans to use $664 million of the funds raised for the following projects: (Note: Other than the schools listed below, the School District has not released names of schools scheduled for renovations or replacements.)

  • Major rehabilitation at 19 schools, including gym additions at four schools

  • Replace two elementary schools

  • Construct two new elementary schools to alleviate overcrowding in some current schools

  • Heating and air conditioner replacements at seven middle schools

  • Equipment replacements and electrical and technology upgrades totaling $62 million

  • Complete phased replacement of Boulder City High School and converting West Prep.

  • The district did not indicate how it would spend the remaining $5 million from the capital levy program.

    A potential bond program would help close the $1.1 billion gap. The district would need to replace eight more schools, provide cafeteria additions, complete phased replacements at three schools, replace portable classrooms with permanent ones at the Sandy Valley school, upgrade softball fields, replace football fields with synthetic turf for water savings and safety and build out another seven elementary schools to alleviate overcrowding.

    Check back for more on this developing story.

    All six School Board members present at Wednesday’s special meeting supported the capital improvement program. Board member Erin Cranor was absent.

    The board argued it could not wait for the economy to improve to address leaky roofs and broken air conditioning units at schools.

    “If we do nothing, we’re going to be in a world of hurt,” School Board member Chris Garvey said. “As trustees, we should not consider doing nothing.”

    “It’s essential to take care of the health and safety issues out there,” School Board member Lorraine Alderman said, noting the issue of equity. “Every school needs to be the same quality as the newer schools.”

    In four years, half of the schools will be 20 years or older, School Board member John Cole said. As with a car, the cost of maintaining an older building is often more than the cost to build a new school, he added.

    However, a 20-year-old school building is actually quite young, compared with schools around the country, said Victor Joecks, communications director at the Nevada Policy Research Institute. Joecks argued that the average school age around the country is 50 years old.

    Further, Joecks said he was appalled by the $5.3 billion the School District says it needs to maintain its school buildings.

    The 1998 bond program raised $4.9 billion over a decade to build 112 schools to address a nearly 50 percent increase in student enrollment, Joecks said. A potential, future bond program would raise more money than the previous capital campaign, despite enrollment now stabilized, he said.

    “Temporary tax increases are rarely temporary,” Joecks said, addressing the School Board. “It’s difficult for the government to give back tax increases.”

    District officials and School Board members retorted that asking voters for a tax increase was not “superfluous.”

    The harsh desert environment puts a great deal of wear and tear on school buildings, especially air conditioning units, said Jeff Weiler, the district’s chief financial officer. If an air conditioning unit breaks – as it did last month at Las Vegas High School, prompting an early dismissal – students are left “cooking” in the desert.

    (Joecks said after the meeting that harsh winter conditions in other parts of the country pose a similar maintenance issue for school districts.)

    “We need to recognize that it’d be foolish of us not to make ‘the ask,’” said School Board member Carolyn Edwards. “If voters say no – and it’s in their right to do so – we will figure out what we need to do.”

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