Bill to replace crumbling Owyhee school requires county contribution, could help other districts
Nearly a month after tribal community members pleaded with the Legislature for funding to replace the Owyhee Combined School on the Duck Valley Indian Reservation in northeastern Nevada, lawmakers advanced a bill on Wednesday that would appropriate $64.5 million to do just that, as well as address needs for capital funds at other rural school districts by offering the option to increase existing property tax rates.
Though supporters say the bill, AB519, brings much-needed dollars to develop schools in rural communities, including tribal communities, it contains a proposal requiring the Elko County Board of Commissioners pay for school improvements by either increasing the property tax rate by up to 25 cents or earmarking existing property tax revenue for schools that could leave it on tenuous footing once it reaches the governor’s desk. The bill now heads to the floor of the Assembly.
The bill affects a county where voters in 2020 and 2021 rejected proposed measures that would have kept property tax dollars flowing to the school district to pay for maintenance and capital improvements. It also may face headwinds in the governor’s office — while campaigning, Gov. Joe Lombardo vowed he would not raise or create taxes during his tenure, a promise staffers have said he intends to keep.
In an interview Wednesday afternoon, Lombardo’s Chief of Staff Ben Kieckhefer told The Nevada Independent that discussions surrounding the bill are ongoing and the governor would “like to find a way to solve this problem.”
“I'm not going to weigh in on the specifics of that legislation because there's work happening,” Kieckhefer said.
Though the bill contains a requirement to apply more tax money to schools, supporters have noted that the measure, for the most part, builds upon existing taxes and allows counties to implement the tax themselves and therefore would not be an automatic tax, aligning with Lombardo’s campaign promise. The measure received bipartisan support from lawmakers during the hearing.
Assemblyman Greg Hafen (R-Pahrump) said in the hearing that the conversation around the bill has been “difficult,” but he was excited about how the proposal created a fund to assist rural school districts broadly. He said it would be a “huge benefit" to all rural counties.
“We're talking about a substantial amount of money and so, to put the work in to solve this, is huge,” Hafen said. “I'm getting goosebumps because what I love is how you expanded this. And you're saying that we're going to go over and above [what we originally discussed]. We're going to actually fund the account to assist rural school districts.”
The Owyhee Combined School is on the Shoshone-Paiute Tribes of the Duck Valley Indian Reservation in northeastern Nevada along the Nevada-Idaho border and is part of the Elko County School District.
During a press conference in late April, tribal community members described numerous problems with the school such as old equipment that make it impossible to consistently regulate classroom temperatures, potential health risks posed by toxic hydrocarbon plumes that federal regulators found under the town and other flaws that Vice Principal Lynn Manning-John said make the school vulnerable to trespassers and a potential school shooting.
“Those are situations and circumstances that are unacceptable in 2023 that we hope can be addressed by the passage of AB519 not just for our community now, but for future rural and tribal communities,” she said in a Wednesday interview ahead of the hearing.
Yet the district has said it lacks the funds necessary to build a new school for the tribal community after Elko County voters stripped the district of tax dollars that it previously relied on for capital improvement and maintenance.
The safety concerns at the school came to a head earlier this month when the Bureau of Indian Affairs arrested a juvenile suspected of making threats of violence to the Owyhee school community and when, in a separate incident, vandals broke into the school and destroyed property.
The district said in a statement that major damages during the break-in included forced entry through a door, shattered and broken windows throughout the building, and damages to a computer. Bathroom fixtures, classroom supplies and staff members’ personal items were also damaged.
The district’s school resource officers do not have jurisdiction in Owyhee so, following the recent events, the tribal council offered to staff the building with hall monitors for the remainder of the school year, which ends June 8.
Assemblywoman Daniele Monroe-Moreno (D-North Las Vegas) presented the bill at the Wednesday meeting of the Assembly Ways and Means Committee, which she chairs. She called the condition of the Owyhee school “completely unacceptable” and said it puts the health and education of Nevada students at risk.
“This appropriation is critical to give the people of the Duck Valley Indian Reservation a school that they deserve,” she said.
Doing ‘the right thing’
As written, AB519 goes a step farther than a separate bill, AB273, co-sponsored by Assemblywoman Alexis Hansen (R-Sparks) and her husband Sen. Ira Hansen (R-Sparks), who represents parts of Elko County. Their bill would have allocated more than $65 million in one-time funds for the construction of a new Owyhee school.
Although the bill is exempt from the legislative deadline, it has yet to receive a hearing and is effectively dead with less than a week left in the session.
Both lawmakers declined to comment on ongoing discussions.
In an email to The Nevada Independent, Elko County Manager Amanda Osborne said that along with the $64.5 million appropriation for a new Owyhee school, AB519 would require Elko County to decide by June 30, 2024, whether to levy an additional ad valorem (property) tax. The county could either implement a new property tax increase between 1 cent and 25 cents per $100 assessed value, or divert part of its current revenues to the school district capital fund.
The bill would allow Elko County and other counties affected by the bill to exceed the tax cap of $3.64 for each $100 of assessed valuation by up to 25 cents.
“When we think about it, we're all guests, here on their land, and it's time for us to step up and do the right thing by our tribal members. But their children are our futures just like all of our children, and they deserve to go to school and a healthy school and this will get us there,” Monroe-Moreno said.
The Elko County Board of Commissioners is meeting Friday afternoon to discuss the bill.
If the Elko County Board of Commissioners fails to raise its assessed valuation of taxable property by the June 2024 deadline, the state would impose the maximum 25 cents of $100 of assessed valuation of taxable property.
Before Elko County School District lost the property tax revenue that previously supported its capital needs, it received 75 cents per $100 of assessed value of the property tax, which was set aside for the Capital Projects Tax, known as “Pay-As-You-Go.” Superintendent Clayton “CJ” Anderson estimates the tax brought in about $16 million in revenue annually for the district to use for its capital needs.
Since the 2021 election, he said the district has tried to stretch its remaining funds. Anderson estimates the district spent $3 million to $4 million this year for “necessary” projects such as Americans with Disabilities Act upgrades and asphalt maintenance, leaving the district with about $14 million to $15 million in reserves.
“We can stretch those funds and postpone expansion projects, things like that, but what you can't postpone is, ‘A roof is about to collapse,’ ‘We can't heat our school,” Anderson said. “Those things have to be dealt with immediately … and it's going to be a big price tag. The worry is we're just one big sudden need away from not being able to pay to fix school.”
If the bill is approved, and the county levies the maximum amount, he estimates the tax could bring in $5 million to $7 million annually. Even though it wouldn't be enough to build a new school, which could cost about $70 million, Anderson said it could provide the district with a safety net for the time being, and provides help when voters decline to support the district.
“In order to be able to do anything substantial and build a new building, that sort of thing, that's going to require more to come in than just that,” he said. “But I think it is a good protection against a disappointed or upset kind of voter base.”
The bill would also allow, but not require, other rural counties’ board of commissioners to raise property taxes by anywhere between 1 cent to 25 cents of $100 of assessed valuation of taxable property to assist the school district in funding capital projects, including for “schools located on qualified tribal land.” The bill states that any tax rate enacted is outside the property tax cap.
In addition, the bill would create an account to assist rural counties in financing school district capital projects. The bill would appropriate $25 million for capital projects for schools located on qualified tribal lands, and another $25 million for capital projects at all other schools. This account would act as a matching fund for the rural counties that decide to enact a tax rate outside of the cap for purposes of school district capital projects.
Under the bill, rates established by those counties must produce only the amount, when combined with anticipated match from the new account, necessary to fund the specific capital project.
The committee approved one of three conceptual amendments proposed by the Elko school district that would require counties implementing the tax to establish oversight panels.
Will Alder, a lobbyist for the tribe, said the panel would provide an opportunity for transparency and public input on how the money, raised as part of the tax, is spent.
Teresa Melendez, a lobbyist and Indigenous organizer, said while there are concerns that AB519 could be harder to pass because it goes farther than the bill sponsored by the Hansens, she said it could go a long way for tribal schools beyond Owyhee such as Natchez Elementary School, which is part of the Washoe County School District and serves the Pyramid Lake Paiute Indian Reservation.
“Hopefully even our elected officials from the rural communities see the benefit and the need for a property tax to help support our dilapidated rural schools,” she said. “Ultimately, the children in our rural communities win with this bill.”
The White Pine County School District has been lobbying lawmakers to appropriate $60 million through SB100 sponsored by Sen. Pete Goicoechea (R-Eureka) to replace two of its schools, David E. Norman Elementary School, which dates back to 1909, and White Pine Middle School, which dates back to 1913. In a letter to Sen. Marilyn Dondero Loop (D-Las Vegas) and other members of the Senate Finance Committee, the district listed several deficiencies in the school building such as asbestos, inconsistent and unreliable cooling and heating systems and lack of safety features. The bill received a hearing Thursday in the Senate Finance Committee, which did not take immediate action on it.
The district’s CFO, Paul Johnson, said AB519 “doesn’t really help” his school district.
“The maximum of $0.25 ad valorem tax would only secure approximately $7 to $8 million in bonds based on my estimate depending on terms,” he said in an emailed statement. “This is about 1/8 the amount needed to fund construction of a new school.”
However, the bill received strong support from the state’s Superintendents Association and the Elko County School District.
Director of Special Services Ken Higby said he’s seen the difficulties of funding schools in rural Nevada firsthand and described the measure as a “breath of fresh air” to have a mechanism to build schools.
“I would call it a visionary bill to help our schools with capital improvement … Moving this forward is going to be felt through generations of kids in rural Nevada,” Higby said.
A fresh start
While the bill now heads to the Assembly for a vote and eventually would need a vote in the Senate before reaching the governor’s desk, the tribal government is moving forward with its plan for a new school regardless of the outcome, said Chairman Brian Mason.
The tribe is putting in $12 million of its own money to fund the new school. Mason said it’s already chosen a new site located 10 miles east of the existing building, and the tribe is in the process of conducting surveys and studies on the land. Once complete, he expects the new school will be able to house about 500 students.
“I think people are going to do the right thing and be on the right side of history with this,” he said about the bill’s prospects.
Manning-John envisions the new school will be a welcoming and inclusive space for the community at large.
“There was a time where the intention of education of Native people was to ‘Kill the Indian, save the man,’” she said. “The new building will support the whole students, the Native students that exist in our community today, and in the future.”
Reporters Sean Golonka and Jacob Solis contributed reporting to this story.
Correction: June 1, 2023 at 3:53 pm: A previous version of this story misstated which entity is being required to raise taxes or earmark existing revenue. That entity is the Elko County Board of Commissioners.
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