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Elko County voters reject school construction bonds in special election

Jazmin Orozco Rodriguez
Jazmin Orozco Rodriguez
ElectionsK-12 EducationRural Nevada
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Voters in northeastern Nevada shot down a ballot question proposing the Elko County School District take out $150 million in general obligation bonds for capital funding projects after an extension of the existing “Pay-As-You-Go” funding stream was voted down last year. 

Nearly 60 percent of nearly 5,000 votes tabulated in the special election voted against the measure while 40 percent voted in favor of it, according to preliminary results released by the county clerk’s office. In the county of more than 52,000 people where more than 26,000 are registered to vote, 3,812 votes were cast by mail, with another 658 cast during early voting and 529 cast on Election Day. Other mail ballots postmarked by Tuesday but received later may be added to the total count next week. 

The results dashed hopes for school district leaders, who had presented projects on a wish list during a previous school board meeting including updates to many K-12 schools and gymnasiums, a new elementary school in Elko, a remodel of a building from 1917 on the Elko High School campus and a career technical education facility for Spring Creek High School, among others. 

“Preliminary results indicate voter disapproval of the bond issue needed to provide funding for acquisition, construction, renovation, and equipping school facilities as provided by the Elko County School District’s Capital Improvement Plan,” the school district said in a Tuesday night statement. “The county will not certify results until a later date, but votes tallied so far point to a loss for Elko County students and the communities we serve.” 

Official results are expected at the end of the month following the canvassing process. 

Interim Superintendent Jeff Zander said he is appreciative of the voters and supporters who took the time to learn about the bond issue. 

“While I am disheartened to learn the results of the election, I am very proud of the individuals who became involved in the election that impacts many,” he said in a statement. “Moving forward, I know [Elko County School District] will continue its sound decision-making practices, ensuring resources are allocated efficiently and in a transparent manner under less-than-ideal circumstances.” 

Jeff Zander, Elko County School District interim superintendent poses for a photo before a school board meeting in Elko on Dec. 14, 2021. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

The ballot question was presented to voters during a special election because the school district’s “Pay-As-You-Go” funding method lapses in June 2022. Before voters turned out against it last year by a nearly 17-point margin, it generated more than $250 million from 1986 to April 2020, helping the district build six new schools, a gymnasium and other projects in the county. 

Currently, 75 cents per $100 of assessed value of the property tax is set aside for the school district’s capital improvement funding. The measure proposed reducing that earmark to 50 cents going toward school district projects. However, the measure was not expected to reduce the overall property tax rate because local municipalities have the authority to increase the tax rate and sweep the remaining 25 cents as part of the budgeting process, as long as the total property tax doesn’t exceed the tax rate limit of $3.64 per $100 of assessed value established by the Legislature. 

In June, the school district’s capital improvement funding will be exhausted, meaning it will need to turn to its general fund to pay for school repairs and maintenance. That’s a major fear of school leaders, who warned that dipping into the district’s general fund — especially after a shift in per-pupil funding approved by lawmakers earlier this year — could adversely affect the district.

The remaining 75 cents of the property tax that had been flowing to the school district can be swept into local municipalities’ budgets once “Pay-As-You-Go” expires.  

Voters at the polls 

The measure sparked heated debate, with voters opposed to the measure expressing distrust in the school district serving roughly 10,000 students and its board of trustees. Five of seven board members resigned during the summer amid debate across the state and country about how school districts should implement COVID-19 protocols. 

Those in opposition to the measure argued that the school district was misusing taxpayer money and expressed frustration at a lack of oversight or transparency.

Dan Bell, who has lived in Elko County for the last seven years, said he voted against the ballot question because he’s against high taxes and because the school district needs to focus on teaching kids instead of constructing fancy buildings. 

“They used to teach kids in the Pantheon outdoors centuries ago,” he told The Nevada Independent outside of the county library after casting his ballot. “I’m sure they learned just fine.” 

Luke Neff, who has lived in Elko his whole life, said he doesn’t think the school district needs more capital improvement funding. 

“We don’t need to be spending more money on stuff we’ve recently just purchased,” he said, referring to two new buildings for performing arts and sciences on the Elko High School campus. “We just did a pile of money. We don’t need anymore. Let’s hold off for a little bit.” 

School district leaders responded to complaints about transparency by pointing to bimonthly school board meetings, which are available to the public both in person and virtually, and during which the school board makes decisions regarding capital improvement projects and funding.

Leaders for the school district added that the $16.5 million performing arts building, approved in 2019 by the school board, had been on the capital improvement needs list for a decade.  

“We have to invest in our schools,” said Alissa Smiley, a first grade teacher who has worked in Elko for nearly three decades. “We absolutely need to make sure that our schools have wonderful facilities to go to. And that’s paid through tax dollars.” 

High-quality and new facilities contribute to the school district’s ability to recruit and hire quality teachers, she added.

“They’re going to want to come to a district that has facilities they’re going to want to teach in,” she said. “They’re not going to want to work in those slums. So then what kind of people are we going to get into Elko County? We want the best and the brightest, always.” 

Amy Reagan, also a teacher in the county, said she voted in support of the measure because it’s the best way to pay for new buildings. She said she was concerned about county residents not doing enough research to find the information they needed before casting their votes. 

“They’re just voting against things because they think it’s against [Gov. Steve] Sisolak,” she said. “It’s going to affect future teachers … It’ll affect our kids from here on out.” 

Lane Diedrichson, who owns a pizza shop in town, said he voted for the measure in spite of the frustration regarding the misuse of funding. 

“I really think that a good solid school system and district is very attractive for a community,” he said. “People who are planning on moving here … one of the things you want to look at is, ‘What kind of schools do they have in that area?’ And I really think these funds, it’s needed. Nobody likes to pay taxes or whatever, but it’s needed.” 

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