The Gwinnett County (Ga.) district has been growing steadily for decades. One result is the new 430,000-square-foot Lanier High School. (Architect: Stevens & Wilkinson)
Four years ago, as U.S. economic conditions were deteriorating, the Clark County (Nev.) district, for decades one of the nation's fastest-growing school systems, scrapped a scheduled $7 billion bond election that would have paid for more than 70 new schools. The yearly enrollment increases Clark County had been experiencing — typically 10,000 or more — had evaporated. The economic collapse in 2008 made it clear that the district wouldn't need so many new schools, and county voters were unlikely to approve such a massive expenditure.
For most schools and universities across the nation, the word "billion" doesn't enter into discussions of facility needs. But like Clark County, many education institutions have had to apply the brakes in the last four years to construction plans for their campuses. Many districts that need voter approval for capital projects made the judgment that the climate was not right to seek a tax increase; schools and colleges that rely on state funding saw legislatures tighten their purse strings or even slash spending on education; institutions hoping that fund raising would bail them out saw endowments shrink and donations ebb.
But school facility needs can't always wait for a thriving economy. Many education institutions have to provide additional space to accommodate increased enrollment or new programs, and even at schools and universities where the student population is stagnant or declining, some facilities are aging and outdated — as the cost of renovating or replacing them grows every year.
Even with the economic troubles that make acquiring construction funds an uphill battle, many education institutions have stepped forward with efforts to address their building needs.
In 2012, the Clark County district no longer was looking at building dozens of new campuses to accommodate growth — its enrollment for 2011-12 of about 308,000 was about the same as the figure in 2007-08. Still, the massive district had identified that it would have $5.3 billion in facility needs over the next 10 years. Only about $216 million of that would be allocated for new schools, and more than $3.4 billion would be allocated for renovating and replacing existing facilities.
Asking voters to authorize the entire $5.3 billion in a 2012 bond issue was not feasible. Because of sizable decreases in property valuation in the Las Vegas area and borrowing limits imposed on the district, the Clark County board had to look at shorter-term answers. It has decided to place a request for a tax increase on the November ballot that would raise $669 million over six years.
Instead of seeking voter authorization to borrow money by issuing bonds, the district is asking constituents to approve a pay-as-you-go tax that would enable the school system to begin tackling some of its building needs. The district described the short-term tax request as a bridge that would deal with the district's highest-priority needs.
Among the projects that would be addressed with the "bridge" funding: major modernization of 19 schools; replacement of HVAC systems at seven middle schools; construction of two elementary schools to address crowding; and replacement of two aging elementary campuses.
By 2018, when the tax would expire, Clark County expects to have the borrowing capacity to be able to seek a bond issue to cover the remaining $4.7 billion in district facility needs.