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July 24, 2014

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Record number of students packing Clark County schools

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MONA SHIELD PAYNE / SPECIAL TO THE SUN

With barely enough room to pass between desks, students in Mr. Gularte’s fourth-grade class begin their morning learning in a classroom of 35 students exceeding the average of 30 students at William V. Wright Elementary School, Friday, March 22, 2013.

Updated Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2013 | 6:15 p.m.

CCSD Student Breakdown

Crowded Classrooms

Hundreds of students flood the playground to start their day at the overcrowded, with an enrollment of 1240 students, and also the largest elementary school in Las Vegas, William V. Wright Elementary, Friday, March 22, 2013. Launch slideshow »

The Clark County School District has a record 315,087 students this school year, according to student enrollment figures released this morning.

The School District shattered last year’s student enrollment record of 311,380 by 3,707 students. District officials had projected earlier this summer they would have about 1,500 additional students this year but were surprised when enrollment figures continued to climb this month.

Although student population growth has largely stabilized in the Las Vegas Valley from the booming 1990s and early 2000s, the School District is still experiencing growth in the outlying suburbs of Henderson, Summerlin and the southwest part of the valley, as housing developers begin building again after the economic downturn.

Consequently, the nation’s fifth-largest school district is faced with a student crowding issue at many of its elementary schools, which are estimated to be about 15 percent over capacity this year.

The School District has more than 30,000 elementary school students in 1,279 portable classrooms, which is the equivalent of nearly 30 permanent school buildings. This year, district officials anticipate a couple of schools may have more students in portable classrooms than in their actual buildings.

In the past, the School District — flush with property tax receipts — was able to build new schools to accommodate its student enrollment growth. Since 1998, Clark County has built more than 100 new schools, becoming at one point the fastest-growing school system in the country.

However, the recession changed all of that. The School District doesn’t have the capital funds for new elementary schools, each of which cost about $25 million to build.

In November, the School District sought voter approval for a tax initiative that would have generated up to $720 million over six years to fund high-priority renovations and technology upgrades at 40 of the district’s oldest and most dilapidated schools.

The capital program also would have funded construction of two new elementary schools to alleviate crowding in the southwest valley and the replacement of aging Lincoln and Rex Bell elementary schools.

However, voters overwhelmingly rejected the ballot measure, known as Question 2, by a margin of 2-to-1.

As a result, the School Board voted earlier this year to bring back year-round schedules to three southwest valley elementary schools: Forbuss, Reedom and Wright. Students attending these schools, each of which had more than 1,200 students last year, are now on different “tracks,” attending school at different times throughout the year to ease crowding.

In light of the new student enrollment figures, the School District is again considering several options to alleviate student crowding issues, including major rezoning and expanding year-round schedules to 65 more elementary campuses next school year.

With a record enrollment this year, however, rezoning students to less crowded schools may not be an option. That’s because many adjacent or nearby elementary schools are also getting crowded.

That leaves year-round schedules as the more likely option that School Board members may be forced to take to resolve student crowding issues next year.

Cramming more students into existing classrooms will no longer be feasible, because the Nevada Legislature approved more funding this year to reduce class sizes at the elementary school level. Clark County has among the highest student-to-teacher ratios in the country.

The 65 schools are candidates for year-round schedules because their enrollments are 25 percent above building capacity and they have more than eight portable classrooms.

Not all of the 65 schools, however, will end up going year-round because they don’t meet the final criteria that they must have a three-year growth average of 5 percent or more.

Although year-round scheduling can lower student enrollment by 20 percent at any given time, going year-round comes at an additional cost: $300,000 per school — above the costs for operating a school on a nine-month schedule, according to the district.

If all 65 schools on the list were to go year-round, the School District is looking at a cost of $19.5 million, which is less than the $25 million it takes to build one new elementary school. However, it puts more wear and tear on buildings, particularly air conditioning units that must run through much of the summer months.

Over the next several months, School Board members will consider ways to ease overcrowding and options to raise capital funds, including a property tax increase like Question 2 or debt restructuring that could free up the district’s capacity to issue more bonds.

A ballot initiative could go before voters as early as 2014, where it would face stiff competition from other initiatives, such as the 2 percent margins tax on businesses backed by the teachers union.

The School Board may decide to delay another ballot initiative until 2016, but waiting three more years may only exacerbate the current student crowding situation.

Statewide, a record 452,220 students are enrolled in Nevada public schools this year, the state Department of Education reported Tuesday.

This is a 3 percent gain in students, the largest yearly increase since 2006.

Dale Erquiaga, state superintendent of public instruction, said the enrollment figure is 3,800 more students than projected in the budget. These are preliminary numbers and the final validated count won’t be known until the end of November.

So it’s too early to tell whether the state will have to pump more money into the Distributive School Account for districts based on their enrollments, he said.

The districts range from a low of 79 students in Esmeralda County to 315,087 in Clark County.

Erquiaga said statewide enrollment has grown every year except in 2009, when the numbers dropped by 770 students.

Sun reporter Cy Ryan contributed to this story.

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