To build or not to build

Karen Gray

Not so long ago the Clark County School District had students enrolling in droves. Families were swarming into the Las Vegas valley faster than communities could handle. And with 4.9 billion taxpayer dollars in its Capital Improvement Program (CIP), CCSD was franticly building schools — on every corner, it seemed.

Today, however, the scenario is drastically different. Las Vegas has the highest foreclosure rate in the nation, unemployment in the state is 11 percent, student enrollment in the district has trickled to a mere .8 percent growth rate and the CIP is down to its last $171 million for new schools.

As part of the final school building plan, CCSD proposes to build four new elementary schools. Last week staff in the facilities and demographics departments gave a presentation to the Bond Oversight Committee suggesting that three of the schools be built now and one school, Triggs, be relocated and placed on hold for a year.

The recommendation sounded almost reasonable, except for one thing: It was not clear why Triggs had to be placed on hold, leaving Ward Elementary with 1,121 students — well over its year-round capacity.

So, a review of staff recommendations and presentation materials seemed appropriate. Sure enough, when all the relevant data is brought together — CCSD zoning maps, 2008-09 school year capacity, enrollment and school calendaring data for school areas — an alternative solution presents itself. Not only could it save taxpayers almost $60 million, but it could relieve the overcrowding problem at Ward.

Ironically, what the maps and data demonstrate is that the one school CCSD proposed to place on hold is the very school the school district most needs. Moreover, if Triggs is built, the need to build Duncan Elementary is apparently also eliminated — saving another $30 million.

Triggs is intended by the district to eventually relieve the severe overcrowding at Ward and Goynes elementary schools, which, together, are 495 students over their year-round capacities. Together the schools use 50 portable classrooms.

By building Triggs, as relocated, CCSD could take 400 students from Goynes and 200 students from Heckethorn, then rezone 236 students from Ward into Heckethorn, leaving each school with an approximate 7 percent vacancy rate — room for growth.

With Triggs alleviating Goynes' overcrowding, there may be no need for Duncan, which is being built to relieve Goynes and Antonello.

Every school surrounding the Duncan site currently has a vacancy rate of at least 7 percent — 60-plus empty seats — with the exception of Tartan, which is 16 students over year-round capacity.  However, bordering Tartan is Scott Elementary, a new school that opened this year, with 174 empty seats.  

If Clark County built Triggs, placed Antonello on a year-round calendar — like every other school in the area — and rezoned students to Scott, every school in the area could have a 7 percent vacancy rate without ever building Duncan.

The "to build or not to build" question does not just surface in the Northwest. There are considerations in the Southeast as well.

Wallin Elementary School is proposed to be built in the Southeast Region. This school is placed in an area with no surrounding schools. It would relieve Wolff and Lamping of their 300 extra students and leave room for growth in each school — taxpayer money well spent.

However, on the west side of Interstate 15, we see another story. Stuckey Elementary is slated to relieve Ries and Frias elementary schools of their 375 extra students.

Students are bussed everyday from as far north as Warm Springs to Ries and Frias, located south of Blue Diamond, between Interstate 15 to the east and Union Pacific Railroad tracks to the west. Building Stuckey will not eliminate this need.

So the question ought to be: Do we build Stuckey Elementary at a cost to taxpayers of $30 million or, alternatively, does CCSD take these children over the railroad tracks to the 572 empty seats waiting at the brand-new schools of Reedom and Fine?

This option, however, was not even discussed at the bond-oversight meeting. It was just accepted that students wouldn't travel over the tracks. Perhaps, if staff would have advised the BOC that there were 572 vacancies on the other side, the committee would have at least discussed it.

Similarly, staff could have advised the committee that building Stuckey and leaving Ries and Frias with a 10 percent vacancy would open Stuckey with more than 350 empty seats. Thus, the bond-oversight group could have considered all the empty seats at Reedom and Fine before just throwing another $30 million in taxpayer money at the question.

The final decision on whether to build or not to build comes before the school board this week.

Alternatives to the staff solutions do exist.

Why not utilize the newly built 746 vacancies, relieve overcrowding at every affected school, leave room for growth and save taxpayers $60 million.

Karen Gray is an education researcher at the Nevada Policy Research Institute.