School funding: Washoe County Question 1

    Students are seen at Pine Middle School in this undated file photo. (Courtesy: Washoe County School District)

    When Washoe County voters go to the polls in November, they will not only be voting for the next president, but the path education will be taking in the community.

    Washoe County Question 1 is an initiative on the ballot that would generate revenue to repair aging schools and build new ones through a sales tax increase. If passed, WC-1 will raise about $780 million over the next nine years.

    The initiative is a half-percent sales tax increase that supporters say is the best way to share the cost of investing in the future.

    If you take a tour of Washoe County schools, visually it's easy to see there are problems with the buildings in which 64,000 students are learning: schools with major repair needs, classrooms packed with students and teachers and makeshift classrooms to accommodate the numbers.

    "We have overcrowded classrooms, kids in hallways being taught important programs, computer classes. We can't expect our kids to learn in this environment, 250 trailers!" said Mike Kazmierski, the president of EDAWN.

    Kazmierski, was one of the 15 members of the Public Schools Overcrowding and Repair Needs Committee created by the legislature to solve the capital needs funding problem for Washoe County.

    "We met with the school district for all the numbers, we saw where growth was, brought in an expert from outside the region to help assess growth, we provided input, and at the end of the day we could see where the growth was but more importantly we could see where neglect was, where overcrowding was, where the schools have not been touched for 30 years!" he said.

    RELATED LINK | Overcrowded/Underfunded: A perfect storm for schools

    The need in Washoe County has been identified as a $240 million backlog in repairs and construction of nine new elementary schools, three new middle schools and three new high schools -- a total of $781 million.

    Kazmierski says several funding scenarios were looked at, but the committee decided the half-percent sales tax increase is the best option and doesn't put the burden on any one group.

    "The shared part is, our visitors are going to pay a little more, all businesses are going to pay a little more, and citizens will pay a little more, so it's spread out as big a base as possible in order to minimize impacts," he said.

    The sales tax will not be applied to groceries or medicine, and legally can only be used for capital needs of the district, no salaries, operating costs or programs.

    So just how much of a pinch will residents feel with the tax?

    The committee enlisted the help of the economics department at the University of Nevada, Reno to figure out how much this sales tax increase will cost the average family of four that makes a combined $75,000 a year.

    Their estimates show it will cost that family about $8 a month or $96 a year.

    Kazmierski says he knows citizens are skeptical about recent school board decisions and how money is being spent in the district.

    If the WC-1 initiative passes, the expenditures will be transparent and will have to be approved by an oversight committee before the board can approve anything.

    "People are worried about accountability. What is the school board going to do with the money? We specifically set up a citizens oversight committee to ensure that every penny in this tax increase will go to maintenance, repair and building of new schools," said Kazmierski.

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