Extended surety authority could breathe new life into old schools


Goodbye, mobile classes. Goodbye, aging plumbing, air conditioning and roofing systems.

Myrtle Tate Elementary School will celebrate its 50th anniversary this year by welcoming students to a new building. The Northeast Las Vegas School – Home of the Tigers – has traded in its lackluster, largely windowless building for a sleek, modern upgrade that offers plenty of natural light, colorful murals, tech improved and more leeway.

The $ 32 million project left some teachers in tears when they visited the new building last month. After a year and a half of disrupted learning, during which COVID-19 ravaged the low-income community surrounding the school, the new building offers a fresh start despite the pandemic still lingering in the background.

“When you look around town you see new schools being built in new housing estates… and charter schools being built in some of the wealthier areas,” said Sarah Popek, principal of Myrtle Tate Elementary School. . “And our students deserve the same opportunities. “

Myrtle Tate is one of five replacement schools opened for the 2021-2022 school year, all funded as part of the 2015 Clark County School District Capital Improvement Program. Two new schools – Hannah Marie Brown Elementary School and Barry and June Gunderson Middle School – are also opening this year in southwest Las Vegas and Henderson.

The Las Vegas Valley is no stranger to school openings. Decades of growth have resulted in a steady pace of reconciliation campaigns, architectural renderings, construction sites, school naming committees, and groundbreaking ceremonies before the yellow buses arrive and the arrival of the students backpacking in the halls.

The cycle is set to continue: At the end of the recent legislative session, state lawmakers approved SB450, which grants school districts the power to issue general obligation bonds without approval. voters for a second 10-year period. The period will begin in 2025 after the end of the current district bonding authority.

District leaders hailed the governor’s passage and approval of the bill as a victory that will allow the school system to continue reducing the $ 10.8 billion needs identified in the capital improvement program. 2015. But the rollover of bonds also signals a pivot in the district’s overall capital improvement strategy.

After years of tracking the area’s suburban sprawl, the district is considering other projects like the Myrtle Tate Elementary School. Modernizing and replacing aging schools in older neighborhoods is another type of school equity.

In 1974, Clark County voters gave the go-ahead for a $ 39.4 million construction program that resulted in eight new schools and improvements or additions to several other buildings. Every few years after that, voters approved another round of construction projects.

Legislation approved in 1997 dramatically changed the game for financing school construction projects by providing more sources of income. The following year, 1998, Clark County voters approved a colossal capital improvement program funded by land transfer taxes, hotel room taxes and property taxes. The 10-year program generated $ 4.9 billion in bond products, paving the way for 120 new schools. Almost 60 percent of that money went to building new schools rather than replacement schools or modernization projects.

As those funds began to expire, the legislature granted an extension that, without needing voter approval, created the 2015 Capital Improvement Program. It is expected to spend an additional $ 4.1 billion on projects. of construction over the decade. Some of these projects have already been completed. Others are in progress.

The problem, however, is a long list of things to do. Clark County School District estimates it needs $ 10.8 billion to complete modernization projects, build new schools, replace old ones, build additions, update equipment and pay for satellites of bus.

This is how district officials found themselves pushing for the passage of SB450 this year.

“We were in the execution phase of all these projects. We weren’t planning any new projects, ”said Jeff Wagner, district facilities manager, referring to the 2015 capital improvement program.“ We are all aware that we have a huge need, so [the bond rollover] is going to give us, really for the first time, the opportunity to do some solid long term strategic planning for the neighborhood and hopefully put the neighborhood in a much better location for facilities.

On average, Clark County schools have a capacity of 99.8% and more than half – 59% – of schools are at least 20 years old, according to a presentation the district made to the legislature. Sixteen percent of schools are over 50 years old.

Facilities staff plan to present a 2025 capital improvement plan, which will include prioritization options, this fall, Wagner said. But a spreadsheet shared with lawmakers outlines projects the SB450 could help bring to fruition.

Among them: 13 new schools, 32 replacement schools, two progressive replacement schools and four building expansions. The estimated cost of these projects is $ 3.39 billion.

Wagner said the bond rollover is expected to generate $ 2.9 billion, which he called a conservative estimate. Past bond initiatives, he said, ended up generating more money than originally expected.

“The 2015 program has been very successful in meeting capacity needs, especially at the elementary level,” he said. “This is the appropriate time in our collective history, I guess, to start aggressively renewing this capital resource, so that the schools built in the 1950s, 1960s, even the early 1970s have lived their useful lives. “

The main entrance to the Las Vegas Academy of the Arts in downtown Las Vegas, seen July 8, 2021 (Jeff Scheid / The Nevada Independent)

The towering red brick building is an eye-catcher in downtown Las Vegas. With touches of Art Deco style and palm trees flanking its entrance, the Las Vegas Academy of the Arts conveys a Hollywood-style representation of schools.

But age-related issues come with its beauty. Built in 1930, it was the original site of Las Vegas High School. Principal Scott Walker, entering his 11th year at the helm of the now magnetized school, explains the problems: The air conditioning system either freezes students and staff or offers no thermal respite. There is only one on-off switch. Plumbing failures created flooding in the exterior yard and sewage smells inside. The hallways are dark and the ceilings are low. There are no ramps or elevators. And the casual passerby wanders around the campus, which includes the main building, gymnasium, theaters, and other smaller, detached buildings.

Las Vegas Academy students don’t complain much, he said. They accepted the quirks of the old school.

“Our children get along,” he said. “They know there might be a day that is too hot or too cold in here.”

The bond rollover, however, could grant the school what Walker sees as long overdue updates. The Las Vegas Academy of the Arts is listed as one of the buildings scheduled for gradual replacement. But the replacement will not involve any bulldozer.

The main university building and gymnasium are listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

A few years ago, students, alumni, parents, staff and community members came together to discuss how to modernize the campus without sacrificing any historical integrity, Walker said. Several architectural firms proposed plans, which the group considered. In the end, a company created a model rendering, which can still be found in the school library today.

The blue figurines in the model represent new or modernized buildings, with the exception of the main academic building and gymnasium, which would be intact given their historical status. A new six-story building, which would house a student union, anchors the proposed changes.

For a while, Walker never thought he would see the model – or anything like that – come to life. But the bond rollover gave him more optimism.

“I still think it’s ideal,” he said, referring to the architectural model. “However, I’ll take what we can get. I’m so glad it’s over because I hope I can at least see it before I retire.

His enthusiasm for an improved campus isn’t just about aesthetics or creature comforts. Walker said this could allow him to increase enrollment to 2,200 – down from around 1,700 – allowing more students to attend the school of magnetic arts. It is also considering more labs for engineering and technology courses, giving its students a boost if they want to access production-oriented jobs.

The possibilities, he says, seem endless.

“I can imagine,” he said, his voice fading.

This is a situation educators experience five miles from Myrtle Tate Elementary School. Last week they were busy unwrapping boxes and squirting colorful decorations into their rooms, wondering what the New Year would bring to a new building.

Popek, the school principal, said she plans to closely monitor student data to see if the improved environment leads to better academics.

Ginger Stevens, the music teacher, observed another potential ripple effect: landscaping and home improvement in the nearby neighborhood. Her four children attended Myrtle Tate Elementary School. They took photos outside before it was razed to make way for the new building.

But Stevens – surrounded by a sea of ​​bars and xylophones – said she already felt at home in the new building.

“My storage is huge,” she said. “And I fill it very quickly.”

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