Capital campaign would fund luxuries not necessities
LAS VEGAS — Clark County School District trustees contend the 21-cent property-tax increase they’re seeking is necessary to repair and modernize 41 schools.
“The district needs to repair or replace critical infrastructure,” said district officials in a recent press release, “such as air conditioning, heating, plumbing, electrical and security systems at some of CCSD's older schools.”
Quite frequently, however, the district’s plans for how to spend the tax-increase money differs significantly from the district’s public talking points — appearing arbitrary or even political.
One example is the construction of new state-of-the-art gyms at high schools that already have gyms — at the same time that other schools, with more pressing needs, are going wanting.
The “capital needs” list approved by trustees in May and offered to justify their tax-increase campaign specifies that four high schools would get brand-new gymnasiums, even though they already have existing gyms. Indian Springs, Laughlin, Moapa Valley and Virgin Valley are the high schools.
At a projected cost of $11.9 million each, those four new gyms alone would cost $47.6 million. To compare, UNLV’s massive, new Mendenhall Center, a 38,000 sq. foot, state-of-the-art gymnasium comparable with facilities at Duke and Louisville, cost just $11.6 million.
Yet schools such as Pat Diskin Elementary — which last month suffered a complete failure of its heating, ventilation and air-conditioning (HVAC) system, forcing the school’s closure and disrupting after-school activities — do not make the list.
And it’s not because Diskin air conditioning is a new problem.
According to district sources, the Diskin HVAC system has been a failure ever since first being installed in 1995. A model never designed to cope with the heat of Southern Nevada but installed anyway, it has required repairs every year since, Nevada Journal was told.
Nevertheless, Diskin, built in 1973, is 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 it is on the district’s “needs” list to receive an $8.8 million HVAC replacement. And Greenspun Middle School, built in 1991, received a $1.9 million HVAC upgrade in 2009, according to CCSD records — yet it too is slated for an $8.8 million HVAC upgrade on the district’s “needs” list.
A list provided by the school district shows Diskin is just one of 32 schools that suffered air-conditioning outages during the first week of the 2012 school year. None of those schools are slated to receive HVAC repairs on the district’s proposed “needs” list, prepared by the district’s facilities department and approved by trustees.
When the Clark County Debt Management Committee met June 7, other schools were cited as in dire need of repair. One was Lois Craig Elementary in North Las Vegas.
School district staff, County Commissioner Tom Collins told committee colleagues, “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.”
Craig Elementary is not on the 2012 list.
Collins, who is seeking reelection to the county commission in November, was also influential in adding the Moapa Valley gym to the 2012 “needs” list.
Indeed, election politics frequently appears an important element in the push for the 21-cent property-tax increase.
Collins’ election opponent is former school board trustee Ruth Johnson, who — according to current Trustee Chris Garvey, also up for re-election and also representing Moapa Valley — “promised” Moapa Valley a new gym during the school’s 2008 graduation ceremony.
Garvey, at the Aug. 1 school board meeting, offered a motion to remove the new Moapa Valley gym project from the 2012 capital needs list and grant it immediate funding under 1998 bond funds that remain in district coffers.
The action, approved by fellow trustees 4-to-3 after a contentious discussion, revealed profound “flexibility” in estimates of school-district project costs.
When the new Moapa Valley gym was on the district’s alleged “capital needs” list, its cost was projected at $11.9 million, according to district records.
When intended to be funded through “contingency” funds left from the 1998 bonding, however, the same exact project was estimated to cost a mere $6.6 million.
District spending on non-pressing issues has been the subject of parent complaints during past school board meetings. In 2010, CCSD approved a $640,143 construction bid to replace the tennis courts and basketball equipment at Durango High School. This bid sparked outrage among parents, specifically Marzette Lewis, president of the Westside Action Alliance Korp Uplifting People (WAAK-UP). Lewis was upset because the district had over $600,000 to spend on new tennis courts but “couldn’t” allocate funds to build covers for the West Prep portable classrooms, leaving elementary-school students waiting for class in the rain.
“You can spend millions of dollars for all these replacements but you can’t find $1,500 for some kind of canopy, some kind of enclosure for West Prep,” said Lewis during the Jan. 28, 2010 board meeting.
West Prep has 25 portables 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 capital improvement plan revisions but is finally listed to receive a $12 million “complete conversion.”
By CCSD estimates, converting a 400-student elementary school will cost only $100,000 more than a new high school gym.
Gibson Middle School was another school brought to the board’s attention by students and parents. 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 on West Sahara Avenue — frequently referred to as “The Pink Palace.” It has tiled showers, marble floors and remote-controlled curtains.
Gibson students also pointed out that their classrooms have chalkboards, while most other schools in the district have upgraded to whiteboards. And if they’d known, they could have also mentioned the new electronic whiteboards, called Promethean boards, that retail at $995 each and which other schools in the district were receiving.
In an internal email obtained by Nevada Journal, Silverado High School’s principal celebrated the boards:
God Dag!! The ASC3 [Area Service Center 3] folks would like to give us more of the Promethean boards like they did last fall. If you would be interested in having a Promethean board mounted in your classroom, please send me an email. I’ll see how many I can get for us.
Nevada Journal’s requests to the district to tour Silverado and to review the ASC3 budget received no response.
The Promethean-boards email was sent in February 2011, the same month the Gibson students addressed the board about their building’s troubles. The email indicates Silverado had received Promethean boards “last fall,” meaning that the school had received the high-priced boards after Lewis had complained that the school board “couldn’t find $1,500 for some kind of canopy” for West Prep’s rained-on students.
Inequities appear par for the course in CCSD spending — a point that Trustee Lorraine Alderman acknowledged in May.
“From the outside, things might look functional, but you never really know what’s going on, on the inside,” she said.
“[With] a lot of these older buildings ... the walls are still sturdy but the air conditioning’s not working, the roofs need replaced, the infrastructure … they still have problems with internet connectivity in their building because it still needs to be upgraded. They still have a microphone system there where it’s the old stick-out-the-speaker-and-use-the-wire-and-mic.
“So, talk about equity issues. Every school in our district needs to be able to have the same quality as our newer schools.”
School Board President Linda Young weighed in, in a similar vein. “We’ve got some buildings, here, on not-quite life support, but they’re pretty close to it,” she said.
Basic High School, which has received $28 million in renovations since 1994, including a $2.3 million gym addition, is targeted to receive another $27 million for major modernizations from the new tax if passed by voters in November.
By comparison, five elementary schools slated for “major modernizations” under the new tax, will each receive less than the cost, $11.9 million, of the district’s planned new gyms.
Many schools on the list are scheduled to receive money to repair problems supposedly fixed with previous bond money. Thirteen schools are listed as needing “electrical system upgrades” ranging from $700,000 to $2.1 million. Ten of the schools, however, 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 is listed to receive another $700,000 from the proposed 2012 plan.
The Las Vegas Sun reported last month that the district, in pursuit of the tax increase, would be launching a “multimedia advertising campaign” consisting of 250,000 mailers, several community meetings, and door-to-door efforts. District officials insisted, however, that not it, but a PAC supporting the initiative would pay for the mailers.
The district’s new-tax initiative, if passed by voters this November, would raise 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 also contributed to this report. For more in-depth reporting, visit http://nevadajournal.com/ and http://npri.org/.
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