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Interview: Special election in Elko County focused on education construction funds

The sign for Elko High School in front of the campus.
Jazmin Orozco Rodriguez
The Nevada Independent
Elko High School on Nov. 19, 2021.

In an upcoming special election, voters will decide if Elko County School District should take out $150 million in bonds for capital improvement projects over the next six years. To learn more, KUNR’s Michelle Billman spoke to Jazmin Orozco Rodriguez, a bilingual reporter with The Nevada Independent who is based in Elko and has been covering this story.

Michelle Billman: Jazmin, there is only one question on the ballot for Elko’s upcoming special election, but it’s pretty complicated. Can you explain what voters are being asked to decide?

Orozco Rodriguez: Voters are being asked whether they agree that the school district should take out bonds in order to continue having a funding source for capital improvement projects, so that includes building new schools or facilities and upkeeping them in terms of repairs or installing new heating or cooling systems or even replacing a roof on a school, if needed.

That ask is pretty simple, but where it gets complicated is when you start digging into how it would affect the property tax, because that’s where the funding for the school district’s capital improvement comes from.

It’s not expected that the approval of the measure will result in any changes to the property tax rate; although, the amount earmarked for the school district will be reduced from 75 cents to 50 cents.

So, the reason this ballot measure is in front of voters is because the current capital improvement funding source for the school district is set to expire on June 30, 2022.

Billman: Yeah, can you tell me more about how school infrastructure projects in Elko have been funded up to this point?

Orozco Rodriguez: Yeah, so currently, 75 cents of the property tax proceeds are set aside for the Capital Projects Tax, known as “Pay-As-You-Go.” For the last 30 plus years, the school district has used this method to build reserves to pay for its projects, but it expires over the summer because Elko County residents voted it down last year. “Pay-As-You-Go” generated more than $250 million from the ‘80s through April of last year and went toward building six new schools in the county, a gym and some other projects.

Billman: In your reporting, you’ve spoken to officials with the school district, who are advocating for this funding. What are you hearing from them regarding the needs in the district?

Orozco Rodriguez: Yeah, school district leaders have expressed their concerns that if this measure doesn’t pass, they’ll be left without a capital funding source once “Pay-As-You-Go” expires. Interim Superintendent Jeff Zander explained to me that without a capital funding source, the school district will have to dip into its general fund in order to carry out school repairs, which he said would negatively affect the school district’s daily operations. Other supporters have also argued that dipping into the general fund could affect staffing, teacher pay, class size and, therefore, the quality of education the district can provide.

Billman: Along with the needs being expressed, there has also been vocal opposition to approving this funding. What are some of the concerns that have come up?

Orozco Rodriguez: That’s right, and I think some of the concerns opponents to the measure have is the issue of transparency. Some opponents have expressed fears that the school district is misusing taxpayer money. There’s a big debate centered around a building, recently built, at the Elko High School campus. It cost the school district $13 million. It’s a performing arts building, and so, opponents just feel that this was a misuse of the funds, but supporters countered that this project has been on the school district’s capital improvement list for decades.

School district leaders also argued that they, you know, go over their plans for capital improvement work during their bi-monthly board meetings, which include public comment periods and are available online and open to the public.

Billman: OK, and lastly, how can people vote so their voice can be heard?

Orozco Rodriguez: The way people can vote, they can cast their ballots by mail from now through Dec. 14, as long as they are postmarked by December 14, or vote in person at the Elko County Library today [December 6, 2021] through Friday. Mail ballots can also be cast at drop box locations at the county clerk’s office and the library.

Jazmin Orozco Rodriguez is a bilingual reporter for The Nevada Independent based in Elko. You can read more of her reporting on this special election here

Michelle Billman is a former news director at KUNR Public Radio.