Surplus provides unprecedented opportunity to build needed schools
This legislative session brings hope for improved education funding in our state. Gov. Joe Lombardo’s proposed budget calls for an increase of $2 billion dollars in state appropriations for K-12 education over the biennium, and legislators are considering this critical proposal now. Nevada’s Economic Forum recently provided increased projection of $250 million in state coffers as well. However, even in this remarkable economic landscape, many school districts will continue to face longstanding and enormous challenges in meeting the needs of their students.
For the White Pine County School District, the persistent challenge is seen in our ability to construct new facilities. New construction may seem to be a vanity project to some or secondary to providing quality education to others, but neither is the case for our district. Though we have worked for years to address this, many of our facilities lack the essential characteristics necessary to serve our students and their families, retain qualified instructional staff and provide the safety and accommodation that any family would expect to have for their children.
Because we are a rural district, many readers may not know about the conditions our students and staff face throughout the school year, especially for two of our schools: David E. Norman Elementary School and White Pine Middle School. Both of these schools are housed in charming buildings that are full of state and local history. They are also, to put it simply, inadequate and concerning.
The David E. Norman Elementary School, which serves students from pre-kindergarten through the fifth grade, was constructed in 1909. That is before World War I, prior to when the first electric starter was installed on an automobile, and more than two decades prior to the legalization of modern gambling in our state. It is not difficult to imagine how construction materials and design differ today than when this school was built or the ways that the building might degrade over 114 years of heavy use. Unfortunately, our students and staff do not have to imagine those changes; they are confronted by them every day.
The school’s conditions range from accumulating maintenance challenges to unacceptable design and deterioration. It has poor indoor air quality due to an inadequate ventilation system, it lacks a reliable heating and cooling system, and interior water damage is an ever-present challenge. But even worse, the building contains asbestos in construction materials in the floors, walls, plumbing and ceiling, it lacks a fire suppression system, and it has limited or noncompliant Americans with Disabilities Act accessibility. Additionally, the 114-year old construction plans never contemplated the need to protect students and staff from acts of school violence that unfortunately occur today.
These are the facts of the conditions at David E. Norman, but they really do not provide the necessary context for what this means for our students. Last winter, for example, a fourth grade teacher had to relocate her class to the library for several weeks while maintenance staff addressed a plumbing leak in the heating unit. On a separate occasion, staff reported a foul odor and steam pouring into a number of classrooms, requiring the heating system to be turned off and the underground pipes to be excavated with heavy equipment. While these problems were solved by the dedicated district maintenance staff, we knew it was only a matter of time before the 1909 system failed again and these same actions will have to be repeated.
In fact, we did not have to wait very long. On the coldest day in 2023 it was -20 degrees outside and the heating system failed again. Students were trying to learn and teachers were trying to teach while wearing their parkas in classrooms where they could see their breath. These conditions are unacceptable to us, to our parents and students, and to the teaching professionals we hope to recruit and retain. We believe other communities would find them just as unacceptable.
Conditions are similar at the White Pine Middle School, which was constructed in 1913. This building has many of the same challenges, including asbestos in construction materials, no fire suppression system and recurring water damages. Additionally, the middle school is built of unreinforced masonry, which poses a major risk in the event of an earthquake, especially when several of the structural systems in the school are already failing.
Like the David E. Norman building, the middle school has limited or noncompliant ADA accessibility. The challenges are even greater at the middle school, though, due because it is a multi-story facility. This means that classes must be held on the first floor for students using wheelchairs or who have other mobility needs. On these occasions, an entire grade level will relocate to the first floor so that access to educational services is comparable for the student in the wheelchair, rotating for all three years of middle school education.
These same students are also excluded from activities such as band, choir, robotics and archery, all of which are delivered on the second floor. While we are proud of the fact that our teachers, students and families are willing to be creative and collaborative to address the needs of individual students, these measures are unsustainable and unfair to the individuals requiring accommodation.
We have faced these challenges in the White Pine County School District for decades, and our community has been persistent in our efforts to find solutions for at least as long. For more than two decades, we have explored tax policy changes, traditional and nontraditional financial arrangements and other options to build a new school, but all have been fruitless. We have also commissioned feasibility studies to rehabilitate and retrofit our existing schools, but the costs have been similarly prohibitive.
In 2008, county voters approved a bond rollover initiative that allowed the school district to retain its property tax debt rate to secure bonds or finance projects on a pay-as-you-go basis. With this authorization, the school district was able to secure a maximum of $7.5 million in general obligation bonds that were used to make improvements on four school campuses.
Servicing this debt will continue to require a substantial portion of our annual revenue through 2034. White Pine County is fortunate to receive revenue from the net proceeds of minerals, but this cannot be used to secure long-term debt because of its unpredictability.
We have explored a number of financing solutions as well. We have looked into public-private financing, since this approach has been successful in larger jurisdictions. We have considered multiple revolving loan programs as well. Unfortunately, whether through voter-approved bonds or any other form of financial obligation, the school district does not have sufficient annual revenue to support principal and interest payments sufficient to finance the cost of a new school.
As the situation has grown more acute, we have taken more aggressive measures to address the needs of our students, families and staff. In January 2020, the school district responded to Gov. Steve Sisolak’s request for local governments to identify shovel-ready projects. We were hopeful that the conditions our students and staff faced made a good case for inclusion in this funding opportunity, but we were ultimately unsuccessful in even receiving a response from the governor’s office after numerous attempts to contact and meet with his staff.
During the 2021 legislative session, Sen. Pete Goicoechea (R-Eureka) introduced Senate Bill 395, at our request, which would allow the voters of White Pine County to go beyond the $3.66 per $100 tax cap in order to raise capital revenue that would partially finance a new school. We knew that this legislation would not have generated sufficient revenue to fund new school construction, but we were willing to try anything to address the maintenance and construction challenges we faced. The bill passed in the Senate but failed to receive a vote in the Assembly.
In March 2021, the school district completed an application for financial assistance through the Fund to Assist Schools Districts in Financing Capital Improvements administered by the Nevada Department of Administration. In order to qualify for funding, a school district must provide evidence that emergency conditions exist, which we believe were well-documented in our application. We have not heard back on our request.
During the 2023 legislative session, Sen. Goicoechea has again introduced legislation through Senate Bill 100, which appropriates $60 million for the White Pine County School District to construct a new school. If this appropriation is approved, the district intends to build a single campus that would replace the construction from 1909 and 1913, respectively, and eliminate the ever-expanding list of deficiencies existing on both campuses. It would also allow for increased efficiencies with regard to staffing, provide a secure environment for our students and allow us to achieve ADA compliance. Similar to our other efforts, SB100 has yet to even receive a hearing in committee.
With an unprecedented proposed investment in public education in our state and an unprecedented budget surplus, this session provides a unique opportunity to address a significant concern in our state. We believe we simply cannot allow these conditions to persist in our county or in others. Whether SB100 passes, or whether it even gets a hearing, we will continue to advocate for the resources necessary to provide quality and equitable instruction to our students.
Terri Borghoff serves as chair of the White Pine County School District Board of Trustees.
Adam Young is the superintendent of the White Pine County School District, where he also teaches choir. He was the White Pine High School principal for 13 years and a teacher for four. He is a White Pine High School graduate and a lifelong White Pine resident.
Paul Johnson has served as the White Pine School District's chief financial officer for 26 years, is a native Nevadan and third generation White Pine alumni. He also serves as a member of the Commission on School Funding and the Committee on Local Government Finance.
This op-ed is also endorsed by: James Beecher, White Pine County district attorney; Mike A. Wheable, White Pine County manager; Nathan Robertson, City of Ely mayor; Krystal Blades, White Pine County School District board clerk; and Scott Henriod, White Pine County sheriff.