Voter Apathy, School Board Blunders Present Obstacles To More Funding

Dec 10, 2015

Credit Julia Ritchey

 Washoe County voters haven't approved new school funding since 2002, and that bond expired three years ago. Without enough money to build new schools or fix old ones, the district will be at the mercy of voters yet again next November. As we continue our Bursting at the Seams series, Reno Public Radio's Julia Ritchey examines this imminent funding crisis.

At the end of the last legislative session, Governor Brian Sandoval passed a $1 billion tax package, the biggest tax hike in state history, to fund sweeping education reforms — but with one noticeably absent component.

"The problem is the pieces of legislation that he passed that will increase various different taxes in various different places — none of that money is earmarked to facilities."

That's Marsha Berkbigler, chair of the Washoe County Commission. She also serves on the Public Schools Overcrowding and Repair Needs Committee.

"It's a committee made up of a cross-section of business people and elected people and school district people, who are interested in seeing what we can do to assure that we do something about the aging school facilities that we have here in Washoe County."

That committee was born out of the last legislative session, in addition to a bill that allows the district to issue a rollover bond on the property taxes it receives, generating about $35 million a year over the next decade.  

Lindsay Anderson is the school district's government affairs director. 

"I think, really, the biggest challenge is that a lot of our legislators, with few exceptions, don't get to spend every day in our schools. So it's hard to stay connected to what the issues are on a day-to-day basis in the classrooms."

The rollover bond will help, she says, but still falls about $68 million short of what the district is looking for to both repair old schools and build brand new ones.

That's why the overcrowding committee was created to decide on a ballot question to raise extra funds for capital needs.

State Representative Teresa Benitez-Thompson explains.

"The easiest way to think about it is last session the legislature approved dollars for what is happening inside the classroom, programs inside of the classroom. ... This is the other side of the coin where we have to give time, attention and resources to building our schools."

But similar efforts to rouse voters have not been successful. In 2008, a referendum to raise sales taxes failed as did another effort in 2013, when the Washoe County Commission controversially shut down a legislative bill called AB46 that would've raised property and sales taxes.

State Senator Ben Kieckhefer says Washoe County is in a pivotal moment.

"The dynamic between operation funding for the school district and capital funding is something that most people do not understand. It's going to be one of the responsibilities of the district and those advocating for this ballot question to find a way to explain that to people in a way that rings true."

But the school district's biggest obstacle to funding may be its Board of Trustees.

The school board has made a series of public missteps this year, violating open meeting laws and approving a contentious $300,000 contract for Superintendent Traci Davis, which included generous backpay and other perks.

At the board’s most recent meeting this week, residents like Mickey Lufkin continued to express disappointment with the board’s leadership, in particular outspoken trustee Howard Rosenberg.

“I intend to recall you, especially you Howard [Rosenberg], who have embarrassed us for the last time. And we have got to take this school district back for the sake of our kids.”

The district has fired back at critics by claiming Davis' contract will, in fact, save money, but many, including Washoe Commission Chair Marsha Berkbigler, think the optics are bad at a time when the school district is in dire need of money.

"They don't seem to be in touch with the concerns and feelings of the citizens. That is a grave concern of a lot of people, I think, who sit on this committee."

The school district’s Lindsay Anderson says she's not sure if a ballot measure is the best way to go about getting funding for schools, but she wants the public to understand just how critical their support is.

"We have a lot of really exciting education reforms going on on the academic side of trying to get more resources to our most vulnerable students. And I think the big threat to that is making sure that the buildings they're in can accommodate all the great teaching that's going on in those buildings."

The overcrowding committee will meet again next week. They're still in the beginning phases of crafting a potential ballot question, but Berkbigler says the real question they face is how to sell it to the public.

*Tune into KUNR tomorrow for the next story in our special series on overcrowding. Also check out KUNR.org for stories aired earlier this week.