Nailing it down

Rumor mill churns on school taxes

A small city of modular classrooms at McQueen High School are reminiscent of military barracks.

A small city of modular classrooms at McQueen High School are reminiscent of military barracks.


In preparing our cover story this week on ballot Question WC-1, we came across a lot of queries, reader comments, and so on that seemed to call for more information. The ballot measure would raise the county sales tax by 0.54 percent from 7.725 to 8.265 percent.

• Erica Zideck Crumley, on the Save Our Schools Facebook page, wrote, “Why couldn’t you revamp and reopen the old Brown School and old Huffaker School for two extra schools and buildings?”

SOS spokesperson Richard Jay responded, “Sounds good, however, they are being used as school [office] buildings.”

In addition, just two buildings are not adequate for the county’s needs. However, there is what some have called ancillary space held by the school district, and no one seems to know how much of it there is, or where it is. About four years ago district administrators were asked by a school board member for a complete and specific inventory of all that space. It has not yet been delivered.

• Again on the SOS Facebook page, Adam Lauritzen raised the issue of using marijuana taxes instead of sales taxes for schools, as in Colorado. Jay replied, “Look at the problems they are facing.” Lauritzen replied, “Such as? Look, there is no way you will convince me this is the way to go.”

There are problems with comparing Colorado to Nevada on marijuana. For one thing, according to the 2010 census, Colorado has an 86 percent larger population. In addition, the set of taxes in Colorado (2.9 percent retail sales tax, 10 percent special marijuana sales tax, 15 percent marijuana excise tax, and retail/medical marijuana application and license fees) differ from those in Nevada ballot Question Two, which would make marijuana legal and regulated. Finally, the Colorado ballot measure put greater emphasis on use of the taxes for health-related purposes than for education.

Though prohibitionists describe the Colorado situation as troubled, in fact it has gone smoothly, given the normal difficulty of starting a new program (and in a survey this week, Coloradans said they would vote the same way again, 51 to 36 percent). Marijuana sales in Colorado recently topped a billion dollars, and municipalities are paying for building roads, capital construction, water rights, homeless programs, health and mental health programs with the taxes. This is with most of the state’s communities still prohibiting marijuana sales. In 2015, Colorado marijuana taxes came to $135 million, and state residents voted to surrender refunds they would have received from the state.

The first $40 million drawn from the 15 percent marijuana excise tax in Colorado goes to school construction. That fund has been slowly filling and is now at about $27 million. So it is an optimistic picture.

Having said that, there is no independent analysis of what enactment of ballot Question Two in Nevada will mean for schools. Its sponsors have their estimates, but there is no disinterested figure.

• Letter to the editor of the Reno Gazette-Journal by Nina Reid: “Twice in years past I have been conned into voting to increase property taxes for school repairs only to have those funds diverted and repairs never done. Until unbiased accountability is locked into place, and despite the undoubted need, I—along with many others—will never again vote to have any taxes at all increased to benefit the Washoe County School District.”

Washoe School District chief financial officer Thomas Ciesynski: “In my nearly 25 years with the school district in the Business Office, I am not aware of a time where capital funds have ever been diverted. Additionally, the finances of the school district are audited by an independent external auditor every year and again, to my knowledge, we have never had a finding that capital funds were diverted. … I would also like to point out that the school district has not had a voter-approved increase in the capital property tax rate in 18 years.”

• We have read or heard from several people saying they won’t support more taxes as long as the present school board sits.

The school board that was a subject of such controversy was the one that sat in 2014, when schools superintendent Pedro Martinez stepped down. Of those school board members, two have resigned for health reasons, one was defeated for reelection, and none of the remaining members are seeking reelection.

In other words, after November there will be an entirely new board.

• As usual, some people have argued to cut the number of school administrators to avoid tax hikes. As the Nevada blog Desert Beacon notes, this is a common refrain in school tax elections. Given how long the Washoe district has been strained financially, it seems unlikely that it would be overburdened with administrators. As it happens, our colleague Terri Hendry at KRNV got there before us. After quoting WC-1 critic Jeff Church’s statement that “Twenty-five [Washoe administrators] make more than the governor, and there’s a couple hundred before you get down to the first teacher,” she then obtained a reaction from Ciesynski, who said, “We have 144 students to every administrator. In Nevada it’s 128 to one and the national average is 31 to one.”

Incidentally, that national average is up from 2000, when it was 12.8 to 1, according to the Education Research Service.