Education

In booming Vegas, year-round rules

Most people in Las Vegas don't debate the value of year-round schools anymore. It seems pointless in a county that has to find room for roughly 12,000 new students every year.

If an elementary school tops its capacity by 15 percent, it is automatically converted to a year-round calendar. After more than a decade of doing business this way, Clark County, Nev., now operates 70 of its 193 elementary schools on year-round calendars -- among the most of any school district in the country.

Parents typically hate it when the schools are converted, although most say they get used to it. Some actually prefer the schedule. School officials view year-round calendars from a different perspective: They say they need them to survive.

"We just couldn't build schools as fast as the students were coming," said Fred Smith, director of construction management for the county school district. "People like the nine-month calendar, but it's not practical here."

Wake County's leaders are well aware of Clark County. Depending on the outcome of a bond referendum planned for this fall, Wake school officials say they might convert all of the county's schools to year-round calendars.

"Tell the school board in your county to get ready for a lot of yelling and screaming," said Jim Sesto, a Clark County principal who has worked in Las Vegas for 24 years. "When parents first hear about it, they just don't like the idea."

Year-round schools haven't solved every problem. The district, in the midst of a 10-year, $4.7 billion building program, opens at least 10 new schools a year.

The openings trigger the annual reassignment of thousands of children. And classroom trailers are still common, partly because some nine-month schools use them to boost capacity as a way to avoid being converted.

But the year-round option has provided a little breathing room amid growth that threatened to suffocate the schools.

"We promised voters in 1998 we would not raise their tax rate for 10 years," Smith said. "The only way to make the numbers work was to operate 12-month schools."

2,000 teachers a year

In a state where a lottery is about the only form of gambling that isn't legal, no one would mistake the neon of Las Vegas for the campuses and government complexes of Wake County. Clark County's economy has diversified some in recent years, but casinos and tourism dominate.

The city's largest "nongaming" employer is the school district, with more than 20,000 workers. The district hires more than 2,000 teachers a year to staff new schools and replace those who leave.

But growth is also feeding itself with new jobs in construction, the service industry and public safety. The communications, health care and airline industries have also expanded.

The mountains surrounding Las Vegas have funneled development into the desert valley, where tile rooftops carpet the sandy soil. No area is immune from growth, not even poorer parts of town where several families sometimes live in a single home.

"We often see several names at one address," said Principal Doug Wilson of Hollingsworth Elementary. "Cousins by the dozens."

Hollingsworth illustrates how far the district will go to accommodate growth. A new year-round school in downtown Las Vegas, Hollingsworth is a two-story building with an underground parking garage that sits on five acres -- about a fourth the size of a typical Wake campus.

"You won't find many schools like this, but the district has become pretty adept at doing whatever it takes to provide seats for everyone," Wilson said.

Promise vs. reality

On paper, the year-round, five-track calendar can stretch a school's capacity by up to 25 percent in Clark County. Each track spends about 60 days in school followed by a break of about 15 days. So one-fifth of the students are on break at any one time.

But a look at Hollingsworth, as well as other year-round schools, offers some insight into why the calendar often fails to create that much extra space.

While most classrooms in the school are used most of the time, it's fairly common to find empty rooms scattered throughout the building. Principals don't like to run a school at 100 percent capacity 100 percent of the time.

Custodians say it isn't possible to properly maintain a building that is always full. Teachers say it's tough to find space for students who need extra academic help during their breaks.

And then there are the "rovers." When five groups of students use a building that can hold only four groups at a time, someone is always without a permanent classroom. Either every group rotates throughout the year or one group of "rovers" moves from empty space to empty space every three weeks.

"I don't think anyone likes it, so when it happens you just sort of put up with it," said Kelly Tourek, PTA president and mother of two children at Lamping Elementary. "But in the end, it's the quality of the teachers and the principal that matter most, not the classroom."

Year-round fans, foes

Parents already assigned to year-round schools tend to be the most supportive of the calendar. Along with teachers, they usually believe that frequent, shorter breaks are better for kids than a long summer off. They also like taking vacations when summer crowds have thinned.

"It takes a little bit of getting used to, but I'm pretty sure it's better for my son in the long run," said Brenda Campbell, who has a third-grader at Cartwright Elementary. "I can remember forgetting my locker combination over Christmas break, so who knows how much he was forgetting over the whole summer?"

Other parents just don't like it.

"It's dumb," said Meredith Collins, who has two sons at Lamping Elementary and a daughter in preschool. "Most of my family lives back East, and our vacations never match."

She also finds it frustrating that two-thirds of the county's elementary schools, the middle schools and the high schools are not year-round.

"You can see what's coming," Collins said. "By the time my boys hit middle school, my daughter will be in elementary, and the schedules won't match even within our family."

Lamping is in Henderson, which is southeast of Las Vegas. Entire subdivisions are built in months. The area has the feel of western Wake County on steroids.

Many parents want the track schedules that come closest to matching the traditional calendar. Lamping assigns tracks on a first-come, first-served basis.

That's why parents start to gather outside the school as early as 5 a.m. on "track assignment day," hoping for an inside edge.

"I know lining up is not ideal, but these are good schools," said Tourek, the PTA president. "That's why parents are buying homes here. If you don't like the issues that come with growth, move to Omaha."

Once track assignments are known, many parents turn to finding day care to cover track breaks. Informal surveys suggest that most kids stay at home during break -- with mom, relatives, family friends or by themselves. But with thousands of students on break at a time, there are more day-care options than parents typically find in Wake.

At a cavernous gym west of the city, kids at a program run by the Boys & Girls Clubs of Las Vegas shoot baskets while others play pingpong and pool in an adjoining room. A few are scattered among the reading room, art center and computer lab. A national organization that often serves low-income families, Boys & Girls Clubs offers financial aid to families that can't afford $75 a week. That's roughly the cost of day care at most centers in Clark, including the ones operated by the city and county.

In a town where the economy is driven by round-the-clock entertainment, some casinos have arranged day care at private centers. The centers are open 24 hours, and payments of up to $25 a day can be deducted from an employee's paycheck. It's one of these centers -- Children's Choice behind Texas Station casino -- that Frank McNeil uses for his first-grade son.

"Right now, my wife and I are both working the same shifts so we really needed a place," said McNeil, a cook at Red Rock Station casino and resort.

McNeil said he's learned to live with year-round schools, although they have some problems.

"My other son doesn't live with me and he is on a different track, so we can't take vacations together," McNeil said. "That really bothers me. But what is the government supposed to do? They have to go to school somewhere."

Tying taxes to growth

Given its reputation as a huge adult playground, Las Vegas doesn't make people think of kids and minivans. "What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas" is still a popular pitch for the city.

In a way, that's part of the problem for schools. Hundreds of new students show up each month in the metro area of 1.7 million people -- and they all seem to stay.

The district handles the increase by tying its revenues to the growth of the county.

Spend a few minutes looking at a Clark County school budget and it's obvious they do things differently from Wake. Property taxes are still important, but they make up a smaller part of the budget.

By extension, that means something else -- namely hotel taxes and a real estate transfer tax -- play important roles in paying for new schools. That has allowed the county to hold down property taxes while pushing on with construction. The real estate and hotel taxes are part of a plan approved by Nevada lawmakers in 1997.

The agreement froze property tax rates for 10 years while providing schools with hotel and real estate money -- linking taxes to growth in several ways.

First, Clark County property is reassessed every year. That means tax bills automatically increase when the fixed rate is applied. Growth also means more real estate deals -- and every $500 worth of real estate sales generates 60 cents for the schools.

The hotel tax assumes that tourism creates the jobs that attract many families. If tourism falters, the jobs -- and presumably the families -- will leave.

"The plan has allowed us to keep up," said Smith, the construction manager. "I'm sure we'll ask voters to do it again in 2008."

It's too soon to know how people will respond to that request, but the idea of rejection frightens school officials. By 2009, Clark County is expected to enroll an additional 50,000 students.

(News researcher Denise Jones contributed to this report.)

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