Reno business leaders pleased with fast pace of school improvements year after $781 million sales tax vote | nnbusinessview.com

Reno business leaders pleased with fast pace of school improvements year after $781 million sales tax vote

WASHOE COUNTY, Nev. — In 2016, Reno business leaders launched an aggressive campaign in support of a Washoe County ballot initiative to raise the sales tax to pay for badly needed school infrastructure.

Quality public schools, they argued in the Save Our Schools (SOS) campaign, are an essential component to attracting quality employees to the region and training the next generation of quality employees.

WC-1, which voters approved Nov. 8, 2016, increased the sales tax in Washoe County by 0.54 percent and is expected to raise an estimated $781 million over nine years to build new schools to handle the district's growing student population, update existing schools and catch up on deferred maintenance.

Since that vote, Washoe County School District officials have wasted no time getting to work. Seven new schools are in the works in the near term, and $20 million was allocated in 2017 to begin repairs to existing schools.

"There was not a big lag between passing WC-1 and getting started," Mike Kazmierski, CEO/president of Economic Development Authority of Western Nevada (EDAWN), said in a recent interview with the NNBW.

Kazmierski was one of the leaders in the SOS campaign and helped spur involvement by other business organizations and individuals. He told the NNBW he was "absolutely satisfied" with the progress the school district had made in the year since WC-1 was adopted, as are other business leaders.

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"The Reno + Sparks Chamber of Commerce is pleased that WC-1 funds are being made available to reduce overcrowding and determine suitable locations for new schools," Ann Silver, Reno + Sparks Chamber of Commerce chief executive officer said in an email to the NNBW.

What has not gone as well, Kazmierski said, is communicating that success.

"The district needs to better communicate to the public how well things are actually going," he said. "Unfortunately, the school district gets beat up a lot on management of the (operations) budget. WC-1 should not be part of that discussion."

Still, projects funded by the sales tax increase are moving forward quickly.

"It's obviously been a tremendous thing for the school district. We certainly applaud the community support (for WC-1)," Joe Gabica, the district's interim chief facilities manager, told the NNBW. "This is a very, very busy time for us."

LOOKING AT THE INITIAL PROJECTS

Two new wings at Damonte Ranch High School will be ready for students for the 2018-19 school year, according to the school district.

Meanwhile, the district broke ground in Spanish Springs and Sun Valley on two new middle schools in December, and construction is also expected to start soon on an elementary school in South Meadows. These three new schools are expected to open in 2019.

The district has also begun negotiations on two more elementary schools, one in North Valleys and one in Spanish Springs. Design work is expected to begin later this year. School officials hope to see the two schools ready for classes in 2020. An additional middle school in Arrow Creek is in early planning stages.

A new high school project is also moving forward. The Wildcreek project, which has been controversial because it will occupy part of the RSCVA-owned Wildcreek Golf Course, will replace Hug High School as well as provide room for additional students. It could open in 2021, according to WCSD.

The current Hug school facility will be transformed into a vocational school. The specific trades it will target have yet to be determined.

In all, 15 new schools are on the table, and although timing and locations for the remainder will depend on future growth and the need in the region, school district officials have said, it's these early projects that are needed now to relieve the existing overcrowded conditions.

Every bit as important as the new schools is catching up on deferred maintenance of existing schools. In the past, only the most urgent projects could be accomplished on the district's limited budget.

"We're going to be able to solve overcrowding quicker than deferred maintenance," Gabica said.

Working around school sessions, plus such things as asbestos and lead paint abatement that comes with work on older schools, slows the progress.

"We've got a plan and we're pecking away at it with the worse things first," he said.

Major maintenance projects across the district in 2017 included replacing outdated boilers, air conditioning, a roof, and a well.

'HURTING FOR CONSTRUCTION LABOR'

Adding to the urgency, officials told the NNBW, is rising construction costs across Northern Nevada.

"One of the problems we're having is the same problem others are having in the area. Labor costs are driving up our costs," Gabica said. "Right now, we're lucky if we can drum up one or two bids, people are so busy.

"The whole area is hurting for construction labor. We are all competing for the same labor forces."

With infrastructure projects moving forward, WCSD will need to clear another hurdle: its operations budget. The district has faced budget deficits for the past 11 years and is looking at a possible deficit in excess of $22 million for the current fiscal year.

Part of the problem is the structure of Nevada property taxes, which keeps taxes low even when property value climbs.

That's good for taxpayers, but bad for schools, according to the district — and, WC-1 funds prohibit diverting sales tax revenue from infrastructure to operations.

Kazmierski is hopeful something will be done in the next legislative session to create more consistent school funding.

"It will be years before the schools are in operation," he said. "There's time to fix it."

In the meantime, the business community continues its involvement in programs to improve the education in the community.

"While our Chamber was a strong proponent of WC-1," Silver said, "our main focus now is support for high school graduation and each student crossing the threshold with the skills needed to secure gainful employment with our business members."