Reno chamber throws support behind Washoe Co. sales tax hike
June 13, 2016
RENO, Nev. — The Chamber of Reno, Sparks and Northern Nevada is the latest business organization to announce support for a campaign to increase funding for county school infrastructure needs by raising taxes in Washoe County.
Chamber leaders on June 9 formally announced support for SOS Washoe, a citizen-led coalition of parents, teachers, business owners and community leaders working for passage of WC-1.
WC-1, which will be on the November ballot, would raise Washoe County sales taxes by 0.54 percent, with funds directed to alleviate overcrowding of district schools and to fix long-delayed repairs on school buildings.
"We need quality schools for workforce development," Sarah Sommers, the chairwoman of The Chamber Political Action Committee and CEO of Solutions at Work, said in a phone interview prior to the June 9 announcement. "Unemployment has been hovering around the 5.3 percent level. There is such a need for quality education for our children."
Sommers said she spoke as a parent, PAC chairwoman, and business owner.
"Quality schools raise property values and attract people (and companies) to move to the area," she said. "It's a big decision to move. It's important for businesses to have quality schools for their employees' families."
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The Chamber has a membership of about 1,800, which includes individuals and a variety of companies from small to giant.
Besides giving the weight of its support for the SOS Washoe campaign for WC-1, The Chamber is donating $10,000 to the effort, Sommers said, and will be educating its members in various ways until the election. Staff members are also active in the campaign.
Alex Bybee, with the Abbi Agency, is leading the SOS Washoe campaign for the Coalition to Save Our Schools.
He said the economy is heading in the right direction, but if issues with overcrowding and crumbling schools aren't fixed, it could undermine the economic progress of the area.
Because of the close relationship between education and the economy, members of the business community have actively been part of the search for solutions.
The 2013 Legislature commissioned the Coalition to Save Our Schools with finding a way to close the growing gap between available funding and critical school infrastructure needs in the district.
The Coalition, which consisted of business leaders, parents, teachers, social services, government leaders and citizens, considered numerous funding sources and decided the sales tax would spread responsibility between residents, tourists and businesses, and should be more palatable to voters.
The additional sales tax is expected to cost most people less than 25 cents a day, according to a press release from The Chamber.
The ballot initiative also includes a provision for a "Capital Funding Protection Committee" to recommend fund allocations to help ensure transparency on how the district spends the funds.
Bybee said that when the campaign officially launched last month, 200 people attended the opening of the office.
"We are overwhelmed by support," he said. "They understand the need and are volunteering."
Funds from approval of WC-1 will be used to resolve two problems in the school district, he said: overcrowding and repair needs.
Bybee said he was shocked to learn that some schools are so short of space that they have makeshift classrooms in the hallways separated from hallway traffic by tarps.
Regarding repairs, asbestos abatement projects remain undone because of lack of funds and many classroom doors can only be locked from the outside. "Columbine locks" that allow teachers to lock doors from the inside for the safety of students in an emergency need to be installed.
"These health and safety things that haven't been fixed are the most alarming things for me, " he said.
Washoe County School District officials currently have few options to fund capital improvements, which have lead to many years of deferred repairs and construction.
The average age of the county's school buildings is 40 years old, according to the district website. One in three schools has not been renovated for more than 30 years; one in three schools has unsafe conditions such as asbestos; and one in five schools is severely overcrowded despite the use of more than 220 trailers for classrooms, many of which are more than 30 years old themselves.
Currently, schools need $781 million in capital improvements.
Without a steady influx of new funds for construction, repair and refurbishing of school buildings, at least five overcrowded elementary schools will be forced to go to multi-track, year-round calendars by the 2017-2018 school year, according to the district.
Four middle schools and four high schools are projected to go to double session in the next five years. Others could follow.