Friday, April 27, 2012 | 2 a.m.
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A little more than half of Clark County voters support a tax hike under consideration by the Clark County School District to fund a $5.3 billion school improvement plan over the next decade.
That’s according to a preliminary survey released by R&R Partners on Thursday. The Las Vegas marketing firm — which has worked with the School District on previous bond measures — contracted public opinion polling company Anzalone Liszt Research to survey 403 randomly selected, registered Clark County voters from April 12 to 16.
The poll found that 55 percent of voters are in favor of a potential capital bond program; 40 percent are opposed. The poll has a margin of error of about 5 percent, with a 95 percent confidence level.
Although support for the tax hike was mixed, the majority of survey respondents said they agreed the School District needed to renovate aging schools and has overcrowded campuses and outdated technology.
About 70 percent of respondents agreed the School District needed to renovate older buildings. About 65 percent said Clark County schools were overcrowded. Perhaps not surprising: 92 percent of respondents said all schools should have adequate science laboratories, gyms and cafeterias.
The study was paid for by a political action committee recently formed by four former first ladies — Bonnie Bryan, Dawn Gibbons, Dema Guinn and Sandy Miller — "to advocate for the passage of a ballot question in support of capital projects for public schools,” according to PAC filing papers.
Three of the former first ladies were present Thursday afternoon at a special School Board meeting to discuss and perhaps authorize a November ballot question seeking voter approval for the capital bond program.
However, the School Board had only budgeted an hourlong special meeting to discuss the $5.3 billion capital improvement plan, right before its regularly scheduled Thursday night School Board meeting.
The special meeting ran nearly an hour late as School Board members deliberated whether they needed an extra five days to submit questions about the various bond proposals, much to the exasperation of a packed audience waiting for the regular meeting to begin.
The School Board eventually voted to recess and reconvene the meeting on May 2, at which time it is expected to approve one of two options for a bond program. Both options would raise property taxes from the current 55 cents to 77 cents, which equates to a tax hike of $74 per year on a $100,000 home.
The first option would be a traditional bond measure. Voter approval of a property tax hike would raise $550 million in bonding capacity for the School District, enough to raise the debt limit to allow the district to issue bonds by 2014. At that time, the district would go to voters again for approval on a 10-year bond program, which would generate $5.1 billion to fund renovations and replacement schools.
The second option would fund renovations on a “pay as you go” plan. A six-year capital levy would raise $669 million, enough to raise the debt limit to allow the district to issue bonds by 2018. At that time, the district would go to voters again to approve a 10-year bond program, which would generate $4.7 billion for renovations and school replacements.
(A couple of School Board members — notably Lorraine Alderman and John Cole — expressed support of the second option on Thursday.)
Gibbons, Guinn and Miller all spoke in favor of the School District’s proposed school improvement plan. They argued there was an equity issue between some of the newer and older schools in the 357-school district.
“Schools, not just education, but actual brick-and-mortar buildings, are the anchors (of the community),” said Miller, who spearheaded the formation of the PAC.
As the 1998 bond program comes to a close, the School District is looking for additional funds to maintain and renovate its current buildings. Some schools, such as the 58-year-old J.D. Smith Middle School, are in poor physical condition, Miller said.
There are 10 to 20 schools that need to be replaced, and upwards of 30 that need to be renovated, Gibbons said, adding that the state does not provide money for school construction.
“We want to be here for you because we believe in you,” Gibbons said, addressing the School Board. “Let’s work together for a real solution today that will pay off in the future.”
The average age of a school in Clark County is 20 years old, which may not seem that old, compared with schools in other parts of the country. However, 30 years old is quite old, Guinn remarked.
When a building gets that old, “we blow them up,” she said, jokingly at first but turning serious. “The public needs to know the plight of our schools … and how dire our situation is.”
However, the public also needs to know what bonding option is being pursued by the School Board and why, said School Board member Carolyn Edwards, who was visibly disappointed about the board’s decision to schedule such a short meeting for an issue of such magnitude.
By scheduling only an hour to deliberate the matter, the School Board was forced to table the discussion to next week, Edwards said.
Further, more specific details about how the School District plans to use the increased property tax revenue and bond sales are unclear, Edwards said.
The School District in February said it plans use the majority of the capital dollars — about $3.4 billion — toward renovating an untold number of schools and replacing nine aging schools. Edwards said she wanted to know how many schools exactly are scheduled for renovations, and which nine schools are scheduled to be replaced.
Although she wants to ensure the decision-making process is thoroughly deliberated and transparent to the public, the School Board doesn’t have much time to dawdle, Edwards added.
If it decides to move forward with its capital bond proposal, the School District must submit its ballot question for the property tax increase by the third week of July.
“I hoped to reach a decision today because we have to make a decision soon,” Edwards said. “We can’t delay. We need to do this as quickly as possible.”