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Washoe's Education Ballot Measure Gaining Momentum


A political action committee (PAC) has raised about a million dollars to support a ballot measure that would raise the sales tax in Washoe County by half-a-percent. Money from the tax hike will fund school capital projects. As Reno Public Radio’s Anh Gray reports a pending lawsuit threatens to strike the measure off the ballot.

On a Saturday morning under clear-blue skies, a small group of volunteers meets up with organizers from the PAC called the Coalition to Save Our Schools. They’re huddled  in the parking lot of Damonte Ranch High School. Alex Bybee, who’s managing the campaign known as SOS Washoe, gives the group some pointers.

“So the way the packets are organized is it’s got a script right here that give you the talking points, and different scenarios at the door,” Bybee explains to volunteers.”

Jumping into a sedan, Bybee heads out with Hannah Jackson, the campaign’s volunteer coordinator.

“It’s just amazing to see how so many people can come together for one cause,” Jackson says, “who are from so many different backgrounds, from so many points of views.”

While knocking on doors is one of the most effective ways to reach voters on a personal level, Jackson says it can also be rough. 

“I’ve had the door slammed in my face,” Jackson says. “I mean they can support it or be against it but when they say I don’t even care about the issue is what’s really hard for me because it’s something that’s so important to me.

Jackson is a college student at the University of Nevada, Reno. She’s also a graduate of the Washoe County School District and is concerned about overcrowding. Right now, one in five schools are overcapacity and there are more than 200 portables in the district.

SOS Washoe Campaign Volunteer Coordinator Hannah Jackson stakes a yard sign for a voter planning to support the WC-1 ballot measure.

Bybee and Jackson park at a cul-de-sac in South Reno, for their first door knock of the day.

“And we always take our sunglasses off at the door,” Bybee explains, “because it makes us seem more friendly.”

Alex Bybee: "Hi, how are you?  We’re with the Coalition To Save Our Schools, have you heard about our campaign, WC-1?"

Jed Oksness: "Ahh, yes, I’m a teacher..."

It turns out that Jed Oksness is a math teacher at Sage Ridge College Preparatory School, but…

“My daughter goes to public school,” Okness explains. “ One of the reasons I do teach in a private school is because the class sizes are smaller and I feel it’s easier for me to reach the kids. Yeah, I support any initiative that improves our schools.”

With just a few weeks left leading to the November election, the SOS campaign will be arming volunteers and paid canvassers with fliers and blue and orange yard signs to blanket Washoe County, but a lawsuit is challenging the ballot measure.

Retired Reno police officer Jeffrey Church filed a lawsuit last month claiming that Washoe’s Registrar of Voters violated a Nevada statute. The law states that each of the two committees drafting language supporting or opposing the ballot measure contain three members per committee.

Church claims the opposition group was disadvantaged with only two members. The group in support had four.  

Church says he’s up against a well-oiled campaign.

“We can’t get our side out, we don’t have a million dollars like they do,” Church says. “We don’t have the big billboards like they do.”

But Church says the opposition shouldn’t be underestimated.

“But you do have the silent minority, and I think that’s what we’re dealing with,” Church explains. “You’ve got what I call the grumpy old men that I have coffee with. They wouldn’t vote for a tax measure under any condition. They don’t care. They don’t care if Mother Theresa comes down and tell them to vote for it.”

Church says he’s not against increasing sales taxes for schools per se. What he finds problematic is the proposed measure would make the sales hike permanent since it does not have a sunset provision.

Retired Reno police officer Jeffrey Church filed a lawsuit in September 2016 against Washoe's Registrar of Voters claiming the opposition committee drafting language for the WC-1 ballot measure was disadvantaged with only two members.

Political scientist Fred Lokken says a sales tax hike itself can impact some vulnerable people in the community.

“It’s considered the most regressive tax and as such this is a real problem for this because it will be done on the backs of some of the poorest people in the valley,” Lokken. “When you don’t have any money, a half-a-percent can make a great deal of difference.”

Lokken says voters have not been apt to pass ballot measures related to school funding in the last several elections. But he says the region’s growth is now at a tipping point.

“I think for anybody who’s been in the valley for at least the last 15 years, they were here for the last growth spurt and saw the impact on schools,” Lokken. “It’s when year-round schools entered the district, we saw a lot of portables being parked all over the place. That hasn’t changed.”

Many in the business community have been throwing their weight behind passing the ballot measure including the Economic Development Authority of Western Nevada and the region’s Chamber of Commerce. They fear school overcrowding will impede the region’s economic growth by preventing businesses from relocating to the area.

A court hearing for the lawsuit is set for Friday, the day before early voting begins.

Anh is a contributing editor for the KUNR news team and has been with the station since 2014. She is an alumna of the Boston University School of Public Health and Teachers College, Columbia University.
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