Interview: What's The Plan For Washoe Schools?

Dec 22, 2016

The Washoe County School Board approved a 76 million dollar plan for new and renovated school facilities.

Reno Public Radio's Noah Glick sat down with Pete Etchart, the chief operations officer for the Washoe County School District, to discuss exactly what projects are covered in this first round of spending.

KUNR:  Walk me through the plan that was approved this week.

Etchart: "Well this is a culmination of a couple of years’ worth of work really. It all started with the legislature and the public schools overcrowding repair needs committee, which they formed. They made a list of what they actually wanted to fund in this community. And we’re going to go off that list the community approved and we’re going to start building schools."

"To put it in a nutshell, I think we’re going to see three new high schools, three new middle schools and nine new elementary schools. That’s the plan over the next nine years. Before, honestly we didn’t have the funds to buy land, so that’s obviously our top priority."

"The construction projects included is the addition to Damonte Ranch High School; we’ll probably break ground in March. And we’ll see that addition completed by December of next year. The other addition we’re going to see right now is to our nutrition services center."

"But what we’re really starting on now is design for the elementary schools and middle schools. We hope to get started on one new elementary school in that South Meadows/Double Diamond area, and then two new middle schools: one in Sun Valley and one in Spanish Springs. So those are the projects we’re going to start design on right now."

What is the cost of building a new school?

"So we looked at them a lot of different ways. One, we looked at national trends and what costs of schools are. We looked at the six western states and what they were costing. We looked at our old schools and actually increased them by inflation to see what they would cost today. And then we looked at what was being built in Clark County."

"So at the end of all that, the cost we came up with is $23 million for an elementary school, $55 million for a middle school and $110 million for a high school."

What is the district’s plan for providing equity to students in some of the older schools in the district?

"One of the things the community decided to fund and was really adamant about funding, was to provide equity into our schools. So they funded $50 million over the next nine to ten years to actually start looking at those inner-core schools to make sure they have the same classrooms and those students have the same advantages all of our students have—whether in a newer school or an older school."

"Right now we’re going to go forward with an analysis of our existing schools. We just authorized $500,000 to really look at our older schools, use what we call our “educational specifications” that we use to build new schools, and use those educational specifications to compare them to our existing older schools to make sure we can bring them up to the same exact standards—so all students have the same opportunities educationally."

What are the key priorities for renovations and repairs?

"The Washoe County School District has long really prioritized on safe, warm and dry. Now we have made a commitment to have $20 million a year going into repairing our existing schools, and try to start making a dent into those hundreds of millions of dollars in repair backlog in our existing schools."

"We’re also going to start attacking some of those playgrounds and asphalt surfaces and carpeting and all those needs a school district has."

"This problem obviously didn’t occur overnight; it’s not going to be solved overnight. It’s going to take every bit of those ten years to really get caught up."

As you know, voters passed WC-1 last month that increased the county sales tax for school facilities. This first phase is actually not funded through that though. Can you walk me through the funding mechanism for this phase and explain how the district is planning on spending the money from the tax increase?

"We have two funding sources to build schools, repair schools and renovate schools. First one is our existing source, which is property tax. We receive 0.3885 cents per every $100 of assessed value of your home. So that’s what we’ve been working with for many, many years. All the projects were approved based on our property tax revenues, our existing property tax."

"We won’t start seeing the new sales tax revenue, the county should start collecting those in about April. We’re always a couple of months behind when we receive funds, so we’ll start receiving funds around June."

"We hope to have our first bond allocation around June or July to actually get approval to start selling sales tax bonds, so we can start building schools. It will probably be around a $200 million allowance for us to start selling bonds. And that’s the money we’ll really use to start building these schools."

"So right now, to design schools and get started is our property tax revenue, and then the sales tax will kick in."

Pete Etchart is Chief Operations Officer for the Washoe County School District. Hit play to hear the full interview.