Las Vegas Sun

November 26, 2014

Currently: 47° — Complete forecast | Log in | Create an account

School district finding it harder to put off desperately needed repairs

Billions needed to fix dilapidated buildings

Image

Leila Navidi

Principal Tim Adams of Rex Bell Elementary School stands on the school grounds in Las Vegas Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2011.

Rex Bell Elementary School

Principal Tim Adams of Rex Bell Elementary School checks out a roof leak on school grounds in Las Vegas Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2011. Launch slideshow »

Amid the worst recession in more than 50 years, the Clark County School District estimates it will need $5.1 billion (with a "b") to repair and modernize its school buildings over the next 10 years — work that was put off because there wasn’t money to do it.

More than $3 billion is needed to fix dilapidated schools. Nine new elementary schools need to be built to alleviate overcrowded classrooms. And the district wants to invest nearly $1 billion in technology and equipment to prepare children for their digital future.

The cash-strapped district is contemplating seeking voter approval to issue bonds to pay for the capital improvements but wouldn’t be in a position to sell those bonds for five years, said Chief Financial Officer Jeff Weiler.

And in the meantime, Weiler noted, schools continue to deteriorate.

Paint is peeling, ceiling tiles are falling and air conditioning units are failing at some of the district’s oldest schools. Faced with multimillion budget shortfalls, the district slashed its funding for school maintenance over the past several years, delaying necessary repairs to school facilities.

Putting off maintenance might save costs in the short term, but may lead to bigger and costlier problems later — not unlike putting off a routine oil change for a car only to have to buy a new transmission down the road, said Paul Gerner, the district’s associate superintendent of facilities.

“It’s a death spiral,” Gerner said, lamenting the budget cuts that have forced the district to defer repairs. “We’re fighting a losing battle.”

•••

In 1998, the district – now the nation’s fifth largest – instituted a voter-approved bond program that generated $4.9 billion to help cover the cost of its unprecedented growth.

Most of the money was used to build 120 new and replacement schools; about a third went toward renovating 229 schools. It was a successful capital plan that constructed and rehabilitated more schools than it promised, Weiler said.

The last schools built with the bond opened in fall 2010. The district is using about $100 million in leftover funds for high-priority renovations.

But that’s not nearly enough to maintain all 357 schools and 35 administrative buildings, Gerner said. The district needs at least $200 million each year for maintenance – more likely upwards of $260 million annually if repairs continue to be deferred, he said.

Even with the 1998 bond, facility maintenance was “grossly underfunded,” Gerner said.

The School District on average spends less on maintenance than many of its peer districts. In 2008, the Broward County Public Schools in Florida – the nation’s sixth largest – outspent its larger counterpart in Nevada, $2.68 per square foot to $1.52 per square foot.

Moreover, as the economic downturn took its toll on the district, it cut 25 percent of the staff in the facilities department.

“We’re spread so thin, we’re just putting out fires,” said Randy Shingleton, a director in the district’s maintenance department charged with overseeing work orders. “We’re really taxing our guys to do more with less.”

Work orders became backlogged. A leaking roof took months to repair. Classroom heating issues took days to resolve.

Fixing immediate problems means less time spent making the repairs necessary to prevent bigger problems, Shingleton said.

A recent report by an outside consulting group — paid through private funds — found that many schools were forgoing repairs that could prevent major problems in the long run.

A model school system should spend nearly two thirds of its maintenance resources toward preventative measures, with the rest going toward corrective maintenance, Shingleton said. But in the Clark County School District, only about 11 percent went toward preventative maintenance.

It’s like skipping regular dental checkups and only seeing a dentist when there are cavities.

To sift through the large number of repair requests, the district implemented a triage system akin to disaster relief efforts, Shingleton said. The facilities department began prioritizing work orders based on the severity of the problem and how many students it affected.

Schools were also prioritized using a nationally recognized metric called the Facility Condition Index. It’s basically the ratio of the repair cost to the overall value of a building. The higher the repair cost, the greater the incentive to replace and rebuild.

The average Clark County school is 22 years old, with needed repairs costing about 11.5 percent of its value.

Gerner has identified 20 schools where the cost of repairs total more than 20 percent of the schools’ value.

“We’re going to continue to be as responsive and as responsible as we can,” Gerner said. “But I sure as hell wish I had more money.”

•••

The confluence of budget cuts and the draining of the 1998 bond money, which funded maintenance up to this point, has created a “perfect storm” scenario for the district, Gerner says.

To fund necessary school repairs, the School District must get more state money or rely on another capital bond program. Both remain elusive as property tax revenues continue to decline with Southern Nevada’s depressed housing market.

For the School District to issue a bond, its revenues – mainly from property taxes – must exceed the debt on its previous bond measures, which are still being repaid . The district does not expect to have the bonding capacity for another five years – until 2017 – which may come too late for some of the district’s oldest and most dilapidated schools.

The 58-year-old J.D. Smith Middle School in North Las Vegas is the oldest middle school in the valley. Cost of repairs there are estimated at about a third of the building’s monetary value.

At Smith, rainwater seeps up from clogged storm drains and trickles down into classrooms from leaky rooftops. The school can’t regulate its temperature – there’s only hot or cold, no thermostat. Doors jam because the ground has shifted over the decades.

The worst problem? The air conditioner breaks down on a regular basis, prompting school administrators to hand out Popsicles to students.

“When it’s hot, it takes a lot out of us,” Principal Christine Ahrens said, adding she feels the district has been responsive to her school’s needs. “The kids are remarkably resilient. We just go on.”

In five years however – right when the School District might be able to start issuing bonds to fund repairs – Smith’s cost of repairs is expected to climb to a record 94 percent of the school’s value. By that time, the school might have to close because there are simply too many problems.

•••

Some schools have gotten creative as they sit in repair-limbo.

At Rex Bell Elementary School in the central valley, Principal Tim Adams sought private grants and enlisted the help of Eagle Scout candidates to repaint portions of the school and erect a flag pole. The 47-year-old school was due for major renovations last year, but because of the economy, Adams was left twiddling thumbs.

Meanwhile, enrollment has swelled at Bell. As families lost their homes in the recession, they have moved back into the neighborhood, which is characterized by apartment complexes and budget suites, Adams said.

Bell was built for a maximum of 400 students, back when Las Vegas was a much smaller city. Now, the school is bursting at the seams, holding double that number of students in its classrooms and in 16 portable buildings.

Facilities problems are felt more acutely at overcrowded schools, Adams said. When a roof leaks or an air conditioning unit goes kaput, students are shuffled around to other classrooms where they don’t have a desk or they’re sitting on the floor, he said

More students taxes the electric grid as well, Adams added. The school wasn’t built for the digital age of smartboards, projectors and microphone systems in every classroom, and circuit breakers pop regularly, he said.

“It’s very disconcerting,” said School Board member Lorraine Alderman, who represents Smith and Rex Bell. “We can’t allow our schools to fall apart and be unsafe for kids. That’s just not negotiable.”

[email protected] / 948-7828 / @paul_takahashi

Join the Discussion:

Check this out for a full explanation of our conversion to the LiveFyre commenting system and instructions on how to sign up for an account.

Full comments policy

Previous Discussion: 7 comments so far…

Comments are moderated by Las Vegas Sun editors. Our goal is not to limit the discussion, but rather to elevate it. Comments should be relevant and contain no abusive language. Comments that are off-topic, vulgar, profane or include personal attacks will be removed. Full comments policy. Additionally, we now display comments from trusted commenters by default. Those wishing to become a trusted commenter need to verify their identity or sign in with Facebook Connect to tie their Facebook account to their Las Vegas Sun account. For more on this change, read our story about how it works and why we did it.

Only trusted comments are displayed on this page. Untrusted comments have expired from this story.

  1. The People of Nevada MUST understand that this scenerio as well as many others, is due the hold MINING and the CASINO/RESORT industry has on Nevada's Constitution, budget, and not having the necessary money to run the whole state.

    WHO to blame: For over a century now, since the Nevada Constitution was written by many of those in the MINING and CASINO industries, we have TAX LAWS that require only a mere pittance tax from the MINING & CASINO industries. They wrote it that way. Our Nevada LAWMAKERS since, have systematically refused to change/reform these TAX LAWS, because the bulk of their campaign contributions are from these industries, and they won't bite the hands that feeds them.

    It is time for the People of Nevada to either have a referendum, or take control by supporting and VOTING in candidates that represent their interests and WILL effectively change the Nevada Constitution TAX LAWS, instead of the decades of politically kicking the can down the road.

    The school districts in this state have done very well for the little that they receive---for the most part, they have been good stewards with public money. And yes, at times, there have been some who made a few mis-steps, as with any human endeavor. Nowadays, teachers are shelling out of their own pockets more because of the squeeze on classroom supplies. If there is a shortage, sometimes the school's PTA can help out, or charitable organizations.

    But once again, we see the Nevada LAWMAKERS giving MINING & CASINO/RESORTS little to none tax responsibility during the 76th Nevada Legislative Session. Instead, education got the microscope and was punished. Taxpayers in our state are bearing more burden than the mining & casino industries and this must change by a citizen call to action.

    Blessings and Peace,
    Star

  2. My school is almost 20 years old, and they can't control the heat there, either. Last week, classroom temperatures reached 90 degrees. The kids can't learn in those conditions! The District needs to raise money for this in any way it can-- what about selling off some of its property?

  3. The comments about the mining industry in this state are correct, they do not and will never pay their fair share because of the sweetheart deals granted them by Carson City. The casino industry, on the other hand, pays their fair share, and provide additional tax revenues. They also subsidize child care cost, provide good benefits for their employees (compared to the private sector), and employ a good portion of the local population.

  4. Back to the crux of the article, the schools are in need of repair, the administrators never had a plan in place for growth, and were typically reactive instead of proactive. While there are schools that have significant overcrowding there are now schools that have fewer students because of the economy. How about busing kids to these schools? Probably won't work because people will be inconvenienced. Between the SNWA wanting us to pay for the additional intake (because California gets over 70% of the Colorado River water from a 1930's deal) we are left AGAIN to foot the bill for California. If those of you with school aged children expect me to foot YOUR bill (my child is grown up and has embarked on her own professional career) YOU ARE SORELY MISTAKEN. If you are unhappy with the public schools there are other options available, but those options typically would require the parents of the children to pay for what they perceive as a good education, or moving elsewhere, or better yet, quit having more kids.

    We are no longer an agrarian society, the need for 3, 4 or 5 children is where the burden comes from, coupled with having to educate a good portion of illegal immigrants,that for some reason, seem to feel they have the same rights as citizens. If you are not a citizen of the US (be it through birth-right or naturalization), you do not have the same rights as those of us that are.

    Also, we do not need 12 month schools, as most of us older folk, did fine on 9 month schools. But people want the schools to both educate AND be baby sitters. Las Vegas was NEVER a family town, is an adult playground, and that my friend will never change.

  5. Xtlman, I take issue with your statement that "The casino industry, on the other hand, pays their fair share, and provide additional tax revenues." Mr. Wynn exemplifies, at least for me, the attitude the casino industry takes regarding taxes in Nevada. I believe the Nevada tax on casinoes is somewhere around 6%. Should any legislator dare think about increasing this tax, Mr. Wynn and his fellow travelers will de-fund that legislator and superfund his/her opponent. Just two weeks ago the governor of Massachusetts signed legislation into law that legalizes hotel/casinos in that state. On the very next day I read that that Mr. Wynn was entering into, or had already entered into, an agreement with the owner of the New England Patriots to build a casino in Massachusetts. (Talk about "vision" and business acumen! This guy is on top of it.) The Massachusetts tax on casinos is to be 25%. In addition, should you be so inclined and have the time, you might do a little research on the tax rates paid by Mr. Wynn, MGM, Mr. Adelson and our other fine citizens/casino owners in the other states and nations where they do business. I assume you know how to "google". Hope your boss reads your post and recommends you for a promotion. Casinos need loyal employees and loyal employee family members such as yourself.

  6. Xtlman, I had a little extra time on my hands so I found the internet link about casino taxes for you. When you have a moment, you might inform yourself and develop a factual base for your comments. BTW, the US Supreme court has disagreed with your definition of who it is that gets a K-12 education in American. Finally, whose taxes paid for the education of your child? Oh, I forgot. You sent her to private schools and private universities didn't you? Sorry to throw all of this at you at once. http://www.noslots.com/CasinoTaxRatesbyS...

  7. If school buildings are falling apart like in the movie "Resident Evil" (the one that takes place in LV) then why are administrators even thinking about the need for iPads, power point projectors and other educational gadgets and the need for new wiring? Why not just use the blackboard and a 99 cent box of chalk? If you guys can't afford pensions for your greedy firemen, then why are you even considering a new school bond issue with high interest rates? Let the kids sit in 90 degree heat. They will be getting a very good education about what happens in a "boom and bust" economy.