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The Nevada Independent

Ensuring safe and adequate schools for children is an investment in Nevada's future

Felicia Ortiz
Felicia Ortiz

Nevada is at a crossroads, and the topic of aging school infrastructure couldn't be more pertinent. We find ourselves discussing this issue daily from our workplaces and at education advocacy events. We discussed it during the 2023 legislative session.

Across our state, schools are either in dire need of immediate replacement or are on the brink of requiring such action. The urgency is palpable, especially in our urban districts such as Clark and Washoe counties, where some of our newer schools, which are less than 20 years old, are bursting at the seams.

We often talk about chronic absenteeism and teacher retention as crucial factors affecting our education system. However, it's rare to hear these issues tied directly to the conditions we force our children to learn in and our educators to teach in. Yet having a safe and healthy environment is not just important; it's fundamental to the success of our entire school system.

To understand the gravity of this problem, it's essential to recognize the limitations of the Nevada State Education Fund, also known as the Pupil Centered Funding Plan. This fund, unfortunately, does not cover capital projects. Instead, local school districts are required to raise money through capital bonds to finance major building maintenance and new facilities.

The sad reality is that some of our school districts and counties lack the population or tax base to afford such endeavors, as highlighted in a recent article by The Nevada Independent highlighting the challenges in White Pine County.

My consulting firm has had the privilege of working with the New Mexico Public Schools Facilities Authority (PSFA) over the past 18 months. The PSFA was established in response to a 1998 lawsuit by the Zuni Pueblo against the state for inadequate school facilities. The PSFA's role is to assess and rank school facilities, determining their eligibility for state funding.

Importantly, it assigns a state/district match based on bonding capacity, ensuring equity across all 89 school districts in New Mexico. While assessing and ranking schools, the PSFA also offers project management and maintenance support, including funding for facilities master plans, project management tools and covering the state's portion of project costs.

Over the past two decades, New Mexico has invested nearly $3 billion in capital projects statewide and it is poised to invest an additional $1.2 billion over the next few years, addressing the urgent need for school infrastructure improvements. The PSFA has also expanded its programs to include pre-K, teacher housing and charter school lease assistance — topics that were recently discussed in our legislative session.

I believe this model could serve as an inspiring example for Nevada. It demonstrates how, as a state, we can support our school districts in ensuring they have safe and adequate learning facilities. Let us be proactive in addressing this impending challenge of upgrading or rebuilding our school infrastructure, rather than waiting for a lawsuit to force our hand.

Felicia Ortiz is president of the State Board of Education and owner/partner of Summit Consulting NV, a local consulting firm that helps organizations optimize their social impact.

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