Wednesday, Sept. 19, 2012 | 2 a.m.
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With less than two months left before the November election, the Clark County School District is getting out the vote for its tax initiative to fix up aging schools.
In the coming weeks, the nation's fifth-largest school district will launch a multimedia advertising campaign, send out more than 250,000 mailers and conduct several community meetings and door-to-door walks.
It's all part of a major effort to drum up support for a six-year capital levy that would raise $669 million to renovate the district's neediest schools.
The stakes are high. Some of the district's oldest schools have leaky roofs and flooded floors, unreliable electrical and HVAC systems, and overcrowded classrooms with broken equipment.
Passage of Question 2 would allow the School District to renovate 41 of the district's 357 schools, giving 43,000 students access to more modern facilities. It comes at a cost, however, as taxpayers would be asked to shell out an additional $74 per $100,000 of assessed home value each year between 2013 and 2018.
Joyce Haldeman knows it's a difficult ask. The district's associate superintendent of community and government relations has worked on several major school improvement plans since the mid-1980s, and says it's always been tough to sell voters on capital improvement plans.
However, this capital campaign will likely be the most difficult one Haldeman has ever seen, she contends. That's because unlike other capital plans that focused on bonds, this one relies on a property tax increase.
A tax hike couldn't come at more inopportune time as Las Vegas continues to struggle in the aftermath of the worst recession in more than a half-century.
"This one will be a little tougher," Haldeman contends. "We don't take this lightly, asking people to invest in their schools. There are always a lot of questions."
To help answer some of the public's queries, Haldeman hosted the district's first information meeting on Tuesday night. About 10 people showed up to the Bonanza High School library to soak up a PowerPoint presentation explaining the ballot initiative.
The last time the School District asked voters to approve a capital plan was nearly 15 years ago, Haldeman began. The 1998 bond program raised $4.9 billion over 14 years, and helped build 112 schools for the nation's fastest-growing district.
Student enrollment has now largely stabilized, Haldeman said. However, in the aftermath of the recession, the district scrimped on necessary school repairs and maintenance.
The facilities department whittled down its budget, allotting just six technicians to maintain 6,000 air-conditioning units in the district's schools. The San Diego City Schools — which serves less than half the student population of Clark County — spends twice as much as the School District on school maintenance, Haldeman said.
While the district was able to temporarily save money, the ramifications of failing to make those necessary repairs are slowly catching up, Haldeman said.
The district has identified $5.3 billion in school maintenance needs over the next decade, Haldeman said. If school maintenance is delayed again and again, repairs will become costlier and costlier.
"It's an insidious cycle we're in," Haldeman said.
When schools opened this fall, a record 47 schools reported complete air-conditioning outages of an hour or longer. At five schools, the broken AC units became such a problem that classes were suspended and students transferred to nearby schools.
With many schools at or over capacity across the valley, the School District's already overcrowded classrooms will overflow with additional students if these system failures continue, Haldeman said.
Worse, the district may have to consider closing schools that are deemed too unsafe for students and staff, Haldeman said. The district may decide to run double-sessions or even revert to year-round schools as well, she added.
"These are not easy solutions to discuss, and the School Board will be forced to make tough decisions," Haldeman said. "They have decided we can't not ask and not give voters an opportunity to decide (on the tax initiative)."
The overwhelming majority — 92 percent — of the funds raised by the proposed capital levy would be spent on modernizing 41 schools with the greatest need. Two of these schools — Rex Bell and Lincoln elementary schools — will be replaced with new campuses, district officials announced Tuesday morning.
(Nine schools would make ideal candidates for replacement, Haldeman said. However, the district wished to limit the scope of the capital improvement plan to mitigate the effect of the tax increase, she said.)
The remainder of the funds raised would go toward building two new elementary schools, most likely in the southwest valley, to alleviate overcrowding. Currently, five elementary schools in this region serve more than 1,000 students per campus.
The small crowd that gathered at Bonanza Tuesday night seemed skeptical, asking probing questions that illustrated concerns about a new tax hike.
Won't the tax increase be made permanent after six years?
This tax increase will last just six years and revert back to its current rate, Haldeman said. It will help bridge funding until the district can begin issuing bonds again in 2018. That's when the district's 1998 bonds will begin to expire, and the district will again have "bonding capacity" to fix its remaining schools.
How will fixing schools help educate my child?
Fixing schools will help officials implement educational "reforms" and increase student achievement, Haldeman said, adding the ultimate goal of the tax initiative is better student outcomes.
"We're not in the business of making sure we have buildings. We're in the business of educating students."
How can we ensure that the schools listed for renovations will remain on the list after the election?
The district is committed to stick with the list of school renovations they released, Haldeman said.
"We made a commitment to every one of these communities. We intend to do the schools on that list."
Ross Yamashita, 37, attended the meeting to find out how the tax initiative will impact his bottom line. Yamashita, who works in marketing, has two children attending a private school.
"My concern is if (the tax initiative) helps education and brings our students up," he said. "I don't want to pay more taxes if it doesn't help education."
Novelt Mack Jr. drove two hours from Laughlin to attend the meeting. Mack — who has a son at Laughlin High School — said he was a bit skeptical of the tax initiative. However, the active parent volunteer said he was happy to learn Laughlin High School is on the list of schools to be modernized.
"When I heard the word tax, it drew my attention," Mack said. "I understand why we're doing it for the six years, but this is not the solution. We need long-term solutions — a few revenue sources (for school maintenance) — or else we'll be right back in the same place in six years."
Dave Flatt, vice president of membership and marketing with the Nevada Parent Teacher Association, said the Las Vegas PTA chapters are ready to partner with the School District in support of the tax initiative. They plan to go door-to-door, hanging door signs and putting up lawn signs to help get out the vote.
"Anytime we can improve students' lives, that's what the PTA is about," Flatt said. "We want to make schools more inviting to parents. We don't want students to worry about the AC failing at the same time they're supposed to be studying."