by Hannah Munro
The Washoe County School District (WCSD) over the years has faced a plethora of issues, including a massive structural deficit, and a lack of ability to issue bonds. In addition to a structural deficit which hindered WCSD’s ability to keep up with much needed repairs and maintenance, the immense growth of the county also led to overcrowding in schools. In 2015, the Washoe County Public Schools and Overcrowding Repairs Committee was formed by Senate Bill (SB) 411 during the 78th Nevada Legislative Session to address a lack of capital funding for school facilities and critical building repairs, and to analyze overcrowding issues affecting the school district. In January 2016, the Public Schools and Overcrowding Repairs Committee decided to create a ballot question for voter consideration in the 2016 general election to enable a source of funding for capital needs across the district.
In the November 2016 general election, a majority of voters in Washoe County passed WC-1, a ballot initiative that sought to increase the local sales tax by 0.54 percent, raising the previous rate from 7.725 percent to a higher rate of 8.265 percent. (See Guinn Center Fact Sheet on WC-1 for additional background on the measure).
Proceeds from this 0.54 percent increase in the sales tax would be collected and directed exclusively to address WCSD’s capital needs, including the construction of new schools, repairs, and the renovation of existing schools. In regards new school building, the passage of WC-1 sought to fund the following:
- Build three new high schools, including additions to Damonte Ranch High School
- Build three new middle schools, and
- Build an additional nine elementary schools.
The initiative, WC-1, passed in 2016 with 56.4 percent of voter approval. The tax was officially imposed on April 1, 2017. As of late 2017,WCSD estimated that WC-1would give the school district $955 million in bonding capacity by 2025.
Another critical component of the ballot initiative WC-1 was the establishment of the Capital Funding Protection Committee. The Capital Funding Protection Committee provides input to the WCSD Board of Trustees, who approved the Capital Funding Protection Committee in February 2016 through Resolution 16-001. This committee is comprised of eleven local elected officials across Reno, Sparks, and Washoe County. The committee works with the District to prioritize the district’s needs and act as an oversight body. In addition, these elected officials are tasked to ensure that the additional revenues raised through the sales tax increase would be effectively managed and spent. The committee has met seven times over the last two years and has provided input to the WCSD Board of Trustees on numerous proposals for capital projects.
Overall, in light of WC-1 being enacted, what measures have the WCSD Board of Trustees taken with respect to the construction of new schools and renovations to existing schools around the district? Since the passage of the ballot over a year and a half ago, there has been substantial maintenance and repairs to old schools, as well as progressing the construction of new schools across the district.
In terms of school repairs for existing school in the WCSD, the first capital projects were approved by the WCSD Board of Trustees in a special meeting on December 12, 2016. The Board of Trustees approved a total of $76 million in the first installment of repairs. This first installment report noted a number of different projects that included:
- $20 million per year in specific repairs projects to older schools
- Additions to Damonte Ranch High School, totaling 22 new classrooms, which were expected to be completed during the first half of the 2017-18 school year
- Funding to purchase land and draw site-specific plans for new middle schools in Sun Valley and Spanish Springs and new elementary and high schools across the district
- Creation of a comprehensive plan for existing high schools
- Plans for a new South Meadows-area elementary school, which will be the first new school built following passage of WC-1
An initial timeline of major building projects is pictured below, and can also be found here.
The WCSD Board of Trustees have also approved important proposals over the last two years in relation to using WC-1 revenues. A timeline of some of those important decisions by the Board of Trustees are as follows:
- On February 28, 2017, the WCSD Board of Trustees approved a bid in the amount of $10.7 million for additions to Damonte Ranch High School. The contractor Clark & Sullivan won the project for additions to the school that include: twenty-two classroom additions, an east wing addition with five classrooms and one business lab, a west wing addition that includes six classroom additions, four larger classrooms, three general science rooms, a chemistry lab, a computer lab, and a special education room.
- On March 14, 2017, the WCSD Board of Trustees approved a consulting services contract related to the acquisition of land for a new middle school on Arrowcreek Parkway. Additionally, the trustees voted to approve $15 million for projects relating to the 2017-2018 “B” Major Projects Program. Although the WCSD has been optimistic of the proposed Arrowcreek Middle School, there was some initial opposition to this proposed school. The opposition’s argument focused on issues of congestion, as well as the lack of information regarding the project.
- On June 6, 2017, the WCSD Board of Trustees approved a $159,700 contract with Wood Rogers Inc. for the development of a due diligence report for the site of Wildcreek High School.
- On October 10, 2017, Mike Cate, the Chair of the Capital Funding Protection Committee (CFPC) presented to the WCSD Board of Trustees that the CFPC approved the 2017-2018 “C” Major Projects Program in an 8-1 decision to build three new schools in the district for $200 million. Pete Etchart, the district’s COO, also argued that bundling the three schools together could help ensure that the schools would be open by the 2019-2020 school year, and that there is more efficiency in selling $200 million in bonds than selling bonds in three different packages. The three schools included in this package were two middle schools and an elementary school.
The cost of the three schools were presented as follows:
- A Sun Valley-area middle school at the cost of $85 million.
- A Spanish Springs-area middle school at the cost of $80.6 million.
- A South Meadows-area elementary school at the cost of $34.4 million.
The board approval of the Capital “C” project passed with a unanimous vote.
- In addition, during this meeting, Marty Johnson of JNA Consulting also presented findings regarding additional revenues for the WCSD. He noted that there was growth in property taxes, but due to property tax abatements, revenues were still fairly low. However, Johnson noted that the school district’s Capital Fund could increase. He noted that although the projected growth rate for sales tax revenues is 5 percent through Fiscal Year (FY) 2022, if the growth rate is even 1-2 percent higher than anticipated, there could be an additional $75 million in additional revenue.
- On November 14, 2017, the WCSD Trustees approved the proposed name of the new elementary school in the South Meadows area as Nick Poulakidas Elementary School and
- On November 28, 2017, in light of the 2018-2019 fiscal year budget, the WCSD’s Chief Financial Officer (CFO) Mark Mathers presented updates on the “Strategic Blueprint” plan regarding overcrowding and repairs for high schools up the year 2025. Two of the new high schools that were emphasized were Wildcreek High School and Hug High School. Mather’s also shared the Due Diligence Report for Wildcreek and project timelines for Hug and Wildcreek. Mathers noted that Wild Creek was projected to open for the 2021-2022 school year, while Hug High’s remodel would be completed by the 2022-2023 school year.
- On December 7, 2017, the Capital Funding Protection Committee was presented with an overview of the new schools budgets as well as land acquisition updates for new schools.
- On December 12th, 2017, the WCSD Board unanimously approved the augmented 2017-2018 fiscal year budget. In a description of changes within the budget, a narrative report describing the changes to the budget noted that, “The Capital Projects Fund accounts for the District’s resources and expenditures for capital projects $200 million in new WC-1 Sales Tax bonds (plus bond premium of $15.5 million) were issued and the opening fund balance increase of $87.4 million is for unspent rollover budget from the prior year and $2.9 million is from Government Service Tax Fund. The existing funds will be utilized to continue Board directed projects related to bond proceeds (paving, fencing, architecture and engineering services, capital renewal, revitalizations and signature academies) while the new rollover and WC-1 funds will primarily be used for building new schools, land purchases, overcrowding relief, safety & security and capital renewal.”
- On March 13, 2018, the WCSD Board approved the naming of the new Sun Valley middle school to Desert Skies Middle School as recommended by the School Naming Committee, although some members of the public wanted the school to be named after teacher and former marine, Michael Landsberry, who died during a shooting at Sparks Middle School in 2013.
- One of the proposed new schools for Washoe County, Wildcreek High School, has been the most controversial project to date since the passage of WC-1. The school has been contested due to the proposed location site of the school, which is near the Wildcreek Golf Course. In March, a group of golfers sued the school district for its plan to build Wildcreek on the Wildcreek Golf Course. The group wanted to halt the construction of the school. In addition, in late March the district announced that the construction of Wildcreek and the refurbishment of Hug would be delayed by one year due to the contractor’s and architect’s request.
- On April 10, 2018, the WCSD Board approved Capital ”B” and “E” projects. The Capital “B” projects were related to entry designs and installations and new elementary schools. Furthermore, the discussion of Capital “E” projects included the discussion of Wildcreek High School. According to COO Pete Etchart, in his presentation, the Capital “E” projects were associated with the new high school in the Wildcreek area, a new elementary school in the Spanish Springs area, and a replenishment of the District’s site acquisition fund. Etchart noted that $6 million dollars was related to purchase, was related to site improvements and purchase of the property in the Wildcreek area. The revenue for both programs came from unallocated funds from a previous bond sale related to WC-1 monies. About $4 million would remain in bond premiums if the Board were to approve the $1.5 million and $7.7 million in projects associated with both programs.
- Furthermore, during the April 10th meeting, the Board also reviewed and approved zoning changes that would be enacted starting in the 2019 school year. These new zoning boundaries would occur after the completion of new schools based on recommendations of the Zoning Advisory Committee. The upcoming zoning changes for students across the district can be viewed
Overall, Washoe County School District has made impressive progress instituting numerous school repairs across the district. They have also made considerable progress in the construction of new schools, all which seem to be moving ahead according to schedule. The passage of WC-1 has given the district the ability to make continual progress as Washoe County continues to grow and develop for the next decade.