Alex Bybee is public affairs manager for the Abbi Agency. The 2016 graduate of the University of Nevada, Reno will head up the agency’s work on the Coalition to Save our Schools Washoe—a campaign geared toward getting voters to approve a .54 percent increase to the sales tax in Washoe County to help fund capital improvement for schools. That would bring Washoe County’s sales tax to 8.265 percent, making it the highest in the state. If voters approve the measure (WC-1) this November, the Washoe County School District will move forward with plans to secure $781 million in bonds to pay for renovations and repairs for older schools in the district as well as the building of new schools.
How did SOS Washoe get started?
Last legislative session, there was a bill—Senate Bill 411—sponsored by Sen. [Debbie] Smith, and that [created] the Public Schools Overcrowding and Repair Needs Committee. And that committee, as you know, had representatives from different industries, different community leaders, the teachers’ union, the PTA. And that group was charged, or was given, five different options of which taxes to consider to raise the revenue necessary to build our schools. So, once they selected the specific tax that will be going to the ballot in November, they took that to the county commission. The county commission voted on the resolution, and now it’s going to appear on the ballot in November. Now, in that timeline, that group of 15 people that sat on the committee, along with different stakeholders in the community—the Chamber of Commerce, the Economic Development Authority of Western Nevada—they came together and they decided, “You know, we need to hire a professional team to make sure that we can lead this to victory in November.” So that’s when the Coalition to Save our Schools was born. And we were retained—the Abbi Agency was retained—in partnership with November Inc., which is another political affairs consulting firm in the state of Nevada. And that’s when we formed the Coalition to Save Our Schools, which is a citizen-led effort to advocate for passage of WC-1 in November, and we’re informally SOS Washoe.
It was my understanding that your goals are both getting people to go out and vote yes on WC-1, and also to campaign … for people to fill those Washoe County School District board of trustees seats that’ll be open.
Well, I think part of the message of SOS Washoe is there is this larger opportunity for a form and a fresh start for our schools this November. SOS Washoe does not endorse in the school board races. Rather, we’re carrying the message that of the seven-member school board, four of those seats are guaranteed to have a new representative filling them in November, because there’s no incumbent. … So, we are trying to tell people that are wary of a system that they feel that they can’t trust, that there is this new beginning, this new chapter, and this fresh start. So really, it’s this three-part puzzle. It’s new schools, new board, renewed accountability. So really, the mission is to build new schools, and wrapped up in that is this larger message of, ’We as a community have the opportunity to put our schools back on track this November.”
That committee … do all 15 of those people also have some involvement in the coalition?
Yes. … And the way that I explain the coalition is that anybody who wants to be a member, is a part of the Coalition to Save our Schools. Tomorrow night [May 17], as we’re launching this campaign, we’re kicking it off, we’re doing the grand opening of our headquarters, you know, we’ll tell everybody, “Welcome to the Coalition to Save our Schools.” And anybody from the … committee who wanted to continue their service and involvement in providing insight and guidance and volunteering for this campaign, they are a part of the coalition.
So, the coalition, I mean, what’s the official stance on the committee’s decision to recommend just a hike in the sales tax?
So, I don’t know that the coalition necessarily has—you know, the … committee was tasked with selected from five different options that the legislature gave them. So, we know that we need new schools, and we know that we were given the option to raise the county sales tax by half of a percentage point to raise the revenue that we need to build those schools. So, right now, the coalition is taking the language of the ballot question that the county commission has authorized, and we’re advocating for that to pass. You know, I talk to people all the time about the urgency of this issue. This November, we need to generate the revenue necessary to build new schools. We are at a crossroads. And either we say yes to WC-1, and we build new schools, and we alleviate overcrowding, and we remove asbestos. Or we say no, and we continue down this road over overcrowded schools. We’re heading down the road to double sessions. You know, the school board voted on that a number of weeks ago. And so the coalition is advocating for passage of WC-1. The … committee has done their work, and we are ensuring that the question is successful in November.
So then the coalition has no official opinion on whether choosing just a sales tax was a good idea, or if perhaps it would have been better to choose a combination of a sales tax and one the other four options that the legislature gave the committee?
There is no formal stance. What I will say is a sales tax is a shared responsibility, right? You have businesses paying it. You have tourists paying a portion of it. And you have residents paying a portion of it. And I think that making sure that we have safe classrooms for our kids is a shared responsibility. So, in that vein, we are supportive of that and are advocating for it to pass.
All right. So, where’s the biggest pushback going to come from?
We know from conversations we’ve had with people in the community that people feel like there isn’t the necessary accountability and oversight to make them feel comfortable to vote yes on this question in November. What I say to those people is, “We’ve got a newly established capital funding protection committee that will make sure that every cent, every dollar, is spent properly, is spent transparently and goes to the capital needs of our schools.” So, the loudest voices and the people that I’ve met that stand in opposition to this currently, they want to make sure that the money is spent where it’s supposed to be spent, and that’s on school construction and repair needs, which legally—once this question passes in November—is the only place that money can go. We are on a mission to educate about this renewed accountability, this new level of oversight that we have from this volunteer community oversight committee, to make them feel comfortable with checking yes in November, making them know that every dollar will go to school construction and repair needs.