Friday, Oct. 12, 2012 | 2 a.m.
In the last weeks before the Nov. 6 election, proponents of a property tax increase to pay for school renovations are making their final push to get out the vote.
Thousands of informational mailers have gone out to students and staff. Red lawn signs and door hangers are starting to crop up around the valley. Billboard and television advertisements are expected soon.
It's all part of a major effort to drum up support for a six-year capital levy that would raise up to $720 million to rehabilitate and replace some of the district's oldest and most dilapidated schools. If approved, the capital program also would fund two new schools in the southwest valley to alleviate overcrowded campuses.
Clark County Schools Superintendent Dwight Jones says the passage of Question 2 will benefit the nation's fifth largest school district. Some of the district's aging schools contend with unreliable heating and cooling systems, leaking roofs and flooding floors, and inadequate electrical outlets and crowded classroom space.
As the recession ravaged Las Vegas, the School District deferred crucial school repairs, slashed its maintenance budget and postponed asking voters for a new school bond program in 2008 and 2010. Earlier this year, the School Board decided it could wait no longer.
If Question 2 passes, voters will shell out an additional $72 per $100,000 of assessed home value each year between 2013 and 2018. That amounts to an additional $6 per month over the six-year lifespan of the capital program.
The Sun sat down with Jones to ask about his thoughts on the tax initiative and the challenges the School District faces in maintaining its 357 schools. This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
With the highest unemployment rate in the country, Las Vegas is still recovering from the worst recession in over a half-century. Folks are worried about how a tax hike would impact their personal budgets. What do you say to them?
Jones: We certainly recognize it's a difficult time to go to voters. We know locally, there's still a lot of need, but we think the economy is showing some weak signs of getting a little bit better. But we have some facilities that are in dire need. We had HVAC systems that failed at the start of the school year. We've got this rain, and I can guarantee you we have some flooding in some schools. When some of our buildings that are 40, 50 years old were built, I don't think anyone could have envisioned our technology needs. We have classrooms with one electrical outlet. It's a high need that we have. For us not to ask would be a mistake.
Why hasn't the district maintained its schools better?
Jones: The easiest explanation is we've been cutting for four years. We've cut about $600 million out of the budget since the recession. We've been trying to keep those cuts away from the classroom. If we're trying to preserve the classroom, maintenance staff and equipment are things that got cut. The public may say, "Well, you shouldn't have done that." On the reverse, we have to keep cuts away from the classroom. It just makes sense when you're in the business of educating that that has to be the philosophy you have.
You've released a list of schools most in need of renovations. What guarantee does the public have that this list won't change after the election?
We made the list public so that folks absolutely know what projects will happen for sure. We expect to raise $669 million, but if the economy gets better, we can generate up to $720 million over the six years. So there could be some additional projects that could be added.
Joyce Haldeman, assistant superintendent of community and government relations: Also, if something happens at another school that is completely unforeseen and we have to take care of that problem, it may become a priority and go on the list.
Jones: But these are the projects that would be done, and that's a commitment that we've made.
There's been a lot of concern over the number of change orders requested by construction companies working on school projects over the last few years. Any projects that come over budget could jeopardize the number of schools that ultimately may be fixed. What is being done about this?
Jones: We are actually taking a little different approach, because there has been a lot of conversation about the change orders. We have been looking at that and saying, is there a better way of how to bid these projects?
Jeff Weiler, chief financial officer: That's right. Instead of buying a school design or paying an architect to design it and then bidding it out, we're going to engage the architect and the construction manger at the same time as we're designing it. Having the construction folks involved early on tends to lead to a better design and helps avoid those unintended change orders. Other entities, such as the City of Las Vegas, is doing this too. But you're loud and clear, we need to do better with change orders.
The Nevada Policy Research Institute sued the School District a while back, threatening to derail the tax initiative from appearing on the ballot. Although the Nevada Supreme Court decided not to grant their request for an injunction, this issue is still in the courts. What are your thoughts about their lawsuit?
Jones: They've decided they'll speak for the taxpayers. That whole thing timing-wise makes it look suspect. I find it interesting that their efforts to save taxpayer money is costing me taxpayer money to defend what I think is a frivolous case. I do plan to send a letter to their board of directors to say let's be clear on what your mission is.
What will happen if voters don't approve this tax initiative? What will happen to these deteriorating schools?
Jones: Already, we take some funds out of the general fund to support some maintenance projects. But, the general fund is already pretty depleted. There will be some pretty difficult decisions that will have to be made as a community.
Our objective is to maintain and keep schools open, because we don't have enough space. But we've got a couple of schools where there may be a recommendation to close them. We would have to have a serious conversation about maybe going back to a year-round school calendar. Parents don't support that, but we may not have a lot of alternatives.
Even if this does pass, we're struggling with schools that are over capacity. I understand portable classrooms, but this year, we've had to send out portable cafeterias and portable restrooms, just because they're so full.
That's why we have to make the case. I think we're asking in the most conservative and fiscal way possible. But ultimately, I will respect what the taxpayers have to say.