The Economic Development Authority of Western Nevada on Tuesday urged business leaders to make Washoe County schools a priority.
“We have a problem,” EDAWN CEO Mike Kazmierski told the group of nearly 400 people gathered at the Eldorado Resort Casino Reno for a presentation on The State of Washoe County Schools. “I hope everyone here knows the challenge — this community doesn’t like taxes.”
Kazmierski is a member of the Coalition to Save Our Schools, a diverse group of business leaders, public officials, parents and teachers commissioned with finding a solution to the growing gap between available funding and critical school infrastructure needs.
The Coalition has proposed a sales tax increase of 0.54 percent, which would spread responsibility between residents, tourists and businesses, should be more palatable to voters, and begin to provide funding for capital improvements to Washoe County Schools.
The ballot initiative also includes a provision for a “Capital Funding Protection Committee” to recommend fund allocations to help ensure transparency on how funds are used by the district.
The initiative will be on the November ballot as WC-1.
“Unmet school infrastructure needs makes the region less attractive to employers,” says literature from Save Our Schools organization.
It’s a message business organizations, normally reticent to support new taxes, are responding to.
“We’re taking a big stance; we’re well committed in this,” Kevin Sigstad said about the support from the real estate industry in a phone interview. Sigstad is a Realtor with RE/MAX Premier Properties, past president of both the Nevada Association of Realtors and the RSAR, and a member of the Coalition to Save Our Schools. “Realtors are literally all in on this.”
He said RSAR along with The Chamber of Reno, Sparks, Northern Nevada, have committed to raising $200,000 to promote the Save Our Schools initiative, also known as SOS. They are being joined in their support by other Realtor associations in the area and the state.
“We feel like there is definitely a need and we feel like this is a good way to meet that need,” Sigstad said.
Don Tatro, director of public affairs and membership for the Builders Association of Northern Nevada confirmed the support of his organization.
“We’re very active in it,” Tatro said.
The school infrastructure has been neglected for decades, mostly due to inadequate funding. The average age of the county’s school buildings is 40 years old.
“That by itself is kind of scary,” Kazmierski told the EDAWN luncheon audience.
In addition, one in three schools has not been renovated for more than 30 years. One in three schools has unsafe conditions such as asbestos. One in five schools is severely overcrowded despite the use of more than 220 trailers for classrooms, many of which are more than 30 years old themselves.
Sigstad said the number of trailers in use is the equivalent of 10 elementary schools. That detail brought home the severity of the situation to him.
“We haven’t had money for so long that they built 10 schools-worth of trailers,” he said.
Following the EDAWN presentation, Mark Ashworth, president of the Pioneer Center for Performing Arts and a past president of RSAR, gave his own slant on the need.
“All of us in the room benefited from a good education,” Ashworth said. “It’s our responsibility as grownups to provide an education to the children.”
Options for funding are pretty scarce. Despite the critical needs, recent attempts to increase revenues — a bond in 2008 and Assembly Bill 46 in 2013 — failed.
Washoe County currently has only two funding sources for capital improvements — limited government allocations and property taxes that dropped dramatically during the recession but cannot increase as much as property values due to a 3 percent cap.
The result has been a growing gap between available funds and what’s needed for improvements. The current needs beyond want current revenues can fund is close to $300 million. Without an infusion of funds, the gap is projected to grow to $800 million by 2024.
At least five overcrowded elementary schools will be forced to go to multi-track, year-round calendars by the 2017-2018 school year, according to the district. Four middle schools and four high schools are projected to go to double session in the next five years. Others could follow.
Not all the school news presented at the EDAWN luncheon was dire. Despite overcrowded buildings in disrepair, academic markers are showing marked improvement.
The 2016 Buckley Report, prepared for EDAWN by Burlingame, Calif.-based Buckley Education Group noted encouraging academic statistics.
The 2015 graduation rate in the district at 75 percent was the highest on record, noted Washoe County Schools Superintendent Traci Davis, and has increased steadily compared to 2012 when it was 66 percent.
“We’re super excited about what we’ve achieved,” she told the audience. “For the first time in the district, every high school was over 70 percent.”
The goal of the district is a 90 percent graduation rate by 202, she added.
Other data show the SAT and ACT scores as well as college readiness benchmarks were above the national averages in 2014, the most recent year comparisons are available.
“What we know is that we’re on the right track,” Davis said.
Kazmierski chided the audience for “perpetuating the myth” that area schools are at the bottom of the nation. Washoe students are performing better than the state average and close to national averages.
“We were actually ranked about the middle (among state averages),” he said, “and we’re improving faster than most” states.
Kazmierski urged the audience to support WC-1 to continue improvements.
“Over time we can solve the problems that have been nagging us for a long time,” he conclude.