MONA SHIELD PAYNE / SPECIAL TO THE SUN
Sunday, June 7, 2015 | 2 a.m.
The students at Long Elementary School all enter through the same front door.
But when the bell rings, half of the kids file into spacious rooms inside the school’s brick-and-mortar building, while the other half walk across the playground to 22 drab, sand brown double-wide portables.
Built in 1977 to accommodate about 500 students, the school now must fit more than 800.
Crowding in elementary schools is not a new problem for the Clark County School District. But thanks to funding authorized by the Legislature this year, the district has its first opportunity since 2008 to build new schools.
The problem is that in the most crowded areas — mostly the older neighborhoods in downtown Las Vegas and in the east valley — there simply isn’t enough land available. Combine that with explosive population growth on the outer edges of the valley, and district officials are faced with a tough decision: Bring some relief to crowded schools in the city’s urban core or stave off future overcrowding in Summerlin and Enterprise.
New schools are needed almost everywhere in the valley, but the district plans to build 11 of 12 in the rapidly expanding communities on the fringes of the valley, particularly in the southwest, according to planning documents.
That’s not fair, some community members say. While schools on the edges of the city are crowded, the problem arguably is worse in the city’s urban core, where a large number of minority and low-income students live.
Ronzone Elementary, near the North Las Vegas Airport, is the most crowded school in the district at 95 percent over capacity. At Sahara Avenue and Jones Boulevard, Wynn Elementary is 89 percent over capacity. East of downtown, Long Elementary is 85 percent above capacity. Cortez and Beckley elementary schools are 74 percent above capacity. The number of portables at the schools reaches into the double digits, yet none of those neighborhoods will get a new school.
“Equity is the No. 1 issue,” said Al Davis, a member of a community board overseeing construction funds. “Low-income families should not be treated differently than anyone else.”
District officials say they have no choice. According to them, it’s not as easy as plopping new schools in whatever neighborhood needs them.
“Basically, there’s no room to build new schools in the central valley because there’s no land to build them on,” said Blake Cumbers, the district’s facilities chief. “It’s fully developed, so it leaves us with very few options.”
The district already reduced the size of its elementary school blueprint, to roughly 10 acres, to save space, but even 10 acres is hard to find.
Sandy Miller, an education advocate and wife of former Nevada Gov. Bob Miller, pleaded with the committee last month to pay more attention to older schools in the city’s urban core, many of which were built during the 1950s and ’60s and now are woefully underequipped to handle modern technology.
That includes schools such as Rex Bell Elementary, next to Palace Station, which is so old, there aren’t enough power outlets in some classrooms to plug in computers.
“There’s a huge disparity between what our oldest schools look like and what our new schools look like,” Miller said. “We should, in this next bond cycle, bring some balance.”
The district is responding by tearing down and rebuilding Bell, built in 1963, as well as Lincoln Elementary, built in 1955. But neither project will enlarge the schools. Both will remain crowded after construction.
Building for the future
As for crowding on the edges of the valley, raw numbers don’t tell the whole story.
Wright Elementary, near Mountain’s Edge, is the most crowded school on the periphery of the city at 66 percent overcapacity. That may not seem as drastic as Ronzone or Long, until you realize Wright was built less than 10 years ago. Now, it has more portable classrooms than any other school, according to the district.
“We just have this Indiana Jones boulder rolling at us called growth,” Miller said.
That has left officials with the task of figuring out which communities need relief the most. In Las Vegas schools, growth tends to win.
From 1998 to 2008, the last time the district had money to build new schools, all but 10 of the 50 new elementary schools were built to support growth in communities such as Henderson, North Las Vegas and Enterprise. Now, as the region recovers from the depths of the recession, growth is on the rise again.
Urban schools may be just as crowded, district zoning administrator Rick Baldwin said, but the communities receiving money are crowded and growing.
“(Money) has to be prioritized to where the children are,” Cumbers said. “If you have zero schools in an area with 1,000 students, you can’t really do without a school. It’s not an option.”
Stuck between two pressing concerns, the district has had to get creative.
One idea for easing crowding in the heart of the city has been to repurpose existing properties, such as shopping centers and strip malls, into schools. Another is to expand schools upward with multiple floors, but that idea runs counter to research showing elementary students perform better in smaller schools. Plus, both ideas are expensive, and expensive is something the district can’t afford.
Officials estimate the district will receive about $4 billion in bond money for school construction and renovation over the next 10 years, but estimates show the district will need about $8 billion to eliminate crowding and modernize schools.
To reduce crowding in neighborhoods where land is at a premium, the district plans to build more than $100 million in new classroom wings at existing schools.
“These building additions give them the same amount of classrooms as the prototypes we are building on the periphery of the valley,’” Baldwin said.
Long will receive a $5 million wing of new classrooms to replace portables.
Principal Katie Decker, who has spent the majority of her 25 years with the district at schools in the city’s urban core, said the additions would be a huge help but only be a Band-Aid for a problem that likely wouldn’t go away soon.
“We really do need more schools,” Decker said.
In the map below, blue bubbles represent the elementary schools built during CCSD's last bond measure. The red bubbles represent the schools the district plans to build in the next two years. The red blocks are the city's most densely populated zip codes, according to census data.