Jim Clark: Pros, cons of Washoe sales tax measure (opinion)
September 21, 2016
There will be only one Washoe County ballot question this November. It will ask voters whether to raise the county sales tax rate from 7.725% to 8.265% for repairs to existing schools, plus building 15 new schools.
In making an informed decision, there's a lot voters must know, so kudos to our local Republican Women's' Club, which sponsored a debate on the subject earlier this month. Arguing in favor of the measure was Reno-Sparks Chamber of Commerce executive Tray Abney, manager of "Save our Schools Coalition" political action committee. In opposition was Jeff Church, a retired Air Force colonel and retired Reno policeman.
Abney told the audience that 1 in 3 Washoe (WCSD) schools hasn't been repaired or maintained in more than 30 years, that 1 in 5 schools is overcrowded, and that 24 schools lack modern fire safety infrastructure. He said that if the measure fails, schools will have to go on double sessions. Abney claimed that none of the money would go to school administrators and concluded by saying that the Legislature has done all that it can, so now it's up to Washoe County voters.
Church concurred that schools need repairs and in some cases new schools are needed, but that existing funding is adequate to do the job. He cited school officials' testimony to the 2015 Nevada Legislature in support of extending an earlier voter-approved real property tax measure (Senate Bill 207) that would: "provide the amount the (WCSD) requires for critical repairs to existing schools."
Church took issue with WC-1 because the sales tax increase would never end. He challenged WCSD's figures showing high schools costing $110 million each, since WCSD's newest, Damonte Ranch High School, cost $36 million in 2003.
He challenged the audience to Google "costs to build schools." He introduced the term "supplantation" … a process by which dedicated capital funds could be diverted to salaries by apportioning staff time to the building and maintenance department. Church dismissed WCSD threats of double sessions as "scare tactics." Finally, Church said that voters should not entrust large sums to the dysfunctional WCSD school board.
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Audience participation was, to put it mildly, spirited. Retired WCSD teacher Joanellen Slocumb berated Abney for the waste and abuse she experienced while teaching. Perhaps the most telling question came from eLearning Café/iSchool founder Kathryn Kelly: Citing reports that show Nevada's K-12 education performance is the worst in the U.S., she asked Abney whether he knew of any studies that showed a correlation between the quality of school facilities and student achievement. He could not. Kelly suggested that money could be better spent hiring top quality teachers.
Interestingly, the Guinn Center, an independent neutral Nevada think tank whose board includes former Harrah's Chairman Phil Satre and UNR President Joe Crowley, recently published a report titled: "Washoe County School District Capital Projects Funding."
The work cites current sources of Nevada taxes available for school maintenance and construction as: property tax, government services tax, real estate transfer tax, impact fees, infrastructure sales tax and room tax. Of those, WCSD only derives revenues from property and government services taxes, so there is more Nevada's Legislature can do to help WCSD.
The Guinn report says that the national standard in expenditures for keeping schools in good repair is 3% of the replacement value of schools annually; that WCSD has only spent 2.5% resulting in substantial deferred maintenance.
Finally, the Guinn Center reports that school construction costs (land and building) are typically about $300 per square foot, so a 130,000-square-foot high school should cost about $39 million, not the $110 million WCSD estimates (unless it has gold doorknobs and bidets).
In summary it seems we have an ill-founded proposal by a dysfunctional school board that would permanently increase the district's revenue without accountability, and in which costs estimates are grossly overstated.
Still wondering how to vote?
Jim Clark is president of Republican Advocates. He has served on the Washoe County and Nevada GOP Central Committees. He can be reached at email@example.com.