Public divided on raising taxes to fund Washoe School District repairs

Listen to the story

Public divided on raising taxes to fund Washoe School District repairs

Members of the public packed the Washoe County Commission meeting last night for a lengthy hearing on the Washoe County School Bill, or Assembly Bill 46. That legislation was passed onto the Commission because the state legislature couldn't reach the required two thirds vote on the measure, which would raise sales and property taxes to fund school repairs.

More than 63 people signed up to speak at the hearing, and it was standing room only.

Barbara Clark, who's president of the Washoe County School District Board of Trustees, outlined the need for a reliable source of revenue. Washoe is the only district in the state that doesn't have a steady source of income for its capital projects. 60 percent of schools are more than 30 years old and 25 percent are more than 50 years old. Clarks says the cost of maintaining those schools and revitalizing them adds up after awhile.

"You are going to hear many reasons why you should or you should not consider raising taxes, but you got to think of that little child, whether they're in kindergarten or whatever grade, sitting in the classroom that needs to have a warm and safe environment."

Commissioner Marsha Berkbigler, who has said she has "grave concerns" about the bill, questioned the district's management of its funds and how much of that goes to actual teaching.

"I'd like to see as much money that goes to schools go to the educational portion of it and the facilities management of it, and fewer dollars going to salaries."

Berkbigler suggested the district look more closely at how to cut down on managerial and administrative positions as the Washoe County Commission has done over the course of the Great Recession. Superintendent Pedro Martinez remarked that 70 percent of the district's budget goes to teaching and the instructional side. He said under 5 percent of the budget goes to the administrative cost of school maintenance and repair projects, and the target for that is 3 percent.

Many opponents of the bill took a hard stance on procedural and constitutional issues, saying legislators and Governor Brian Sandoval have set a bad precedent by passing the bill onto the Commission.

One such person was Carlos Cardoso.

"The arguments we've heard have been more emotional, pulling at our heart strings for the children. Everyone feels for the children, but it's a matter of the way this law has been put forth, and I don't think it's going to stand up to a legal challenge."

Several opponents expressed similar opinions about the process being unconstitutional and likely to result in litigation. Other arguments against the bill included its violation of the statutory cap on property tax rates, the district's history of poorly managing bond expenditures for capital projects, and finally the worry this legislation will lead to a cascade of tax increases being delegated to commissions, instead of following the normal legislative process.

Those in favor of the bill, including parents of students, education advocates and realtors (to name a few), say it's merely a tool for improving the sorry condition of some of Washoe County's schools.

Last night's meeting was the first of three that will need to happen if the Commission does decide to pass an ordinance raising taxes. Four out of five commissioners will need to vote in favor of the bill for it to pass. There's no sunset on the taxes. The District has estimated it needs 500 million dollars to complete all its projects. Currently, it has about 143 million dollars in its capital projects account.

You can review the age and enrollment numbers for each school in the district here.

Here's a closer look at the district's plans.