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Some times it costs more to do what’s best for students

Abby Johnson

The Carson City School District is planning to ask voters this fall to approve $25 million in school improvements without an increase in taxes.

Unlike some public entities, school districts can’t fund large infrastructure improvements and upkeep by saving for a rainy day. Instead, when the roof needs renewal and the boiler is nearly blown, the school district borrows money, which requires voter approval. I support continuing the existing school tax to fund infrastructure improvements. It’s the equivalent of a home equity loan for our schools and the only way the district can maintain its facilities for decades of use.

The process to consider a bond started in October of 2005, when school district director of operations Mike Mitchell convened a facility master plan committee with broad community and school representation. The committee met for two months, learned about the physical condition of our schools, and recommended projects to the school board.

District wide, some roofs require replacement, and several heating and ventilation systems need upgrading. The committee recommended spending $12 million to replace the 13 portables at Carson Middle School with a permanent building to unify the campus and reduce the high cost of maintaining the temporary classrooms.

When I learned that Carson Middle School, current enrollment 1,134, would be renovated to convert portable capacity to bricks and mortar, I winced. I’ve been a participant and observer of school matters since 1989 when I served on the master plan committee that developed the ideas for the successful 1990 bond. CMS has always been the school with the elastic capacity, thanks to its village of portables and administrators who relish the management challenges of an overpopulated middle school.

We don’t want kids to fall through the cracks. That alienation can begin in middle school when children are blooming into puberty with the pressures and insecurities that entails. Educationally, research shows that the optimal size for a middle school is no greater than 800. Schools that team and cluster big classes into smaller groups cope better. But the reality is that a 1,200 student middle school is too big. We need a third middle school.

The need for vocational facilities improvement at Carson High School was stated by the 1995 master plan committee in its final report. “The industrial arts/vocational arts facilities are minimal for a school with this capacity and consideration should be given to enlarging these departments. Additionally there is no facility for theatrical performances and a stage and seating area should be considered.” (A high school theater was initially proposed in the 1990 bond but was cut in order to trim costs before it went to a vote of the people.)

The 2005 master plan process also brought to the surface the growing need for a full vocational technical program at the high school level. The committee recommended additional study, and was attracted by the concept of a regional high school serving a number of counties.

Recent concerns about ventilation in the welding lab and its effects on other classrooms are bringing increased attention to the immediate need for adequate safe vocational/technical facilities at Carson High.

Consider the possibility of a separate vocational/technical building on the Carson High School campus. It could be a school within a school for auto body, welding, carpentry and construction arts, and applied math, science, English, and civics. It could also accommodate the drama department’s set building, classroom and performance space with a theater which also meets the multi-purpose need for auditorium space at the high school.

The voc/tech programs keep kids in school who would otherwise leave. Voc/tech catches kids who fall through the cracks. Voc/tech trains students to be valuable employees in the real world. For too long we have neglected this at Carson High School.

Right now, at 2,452 enrollment, Carson High is a big school with small school facilities. That needs to change soon in order to stem the attrition of students. The class of 2006 started with approximately 750 students, and is expected to graduate about 430. That’s not all dropouts, but it is a significant reduction.

Many times in our school district, decisions are made based on what is best financially. What is best educationally may be of secondary consideration.

I understand that a “blue ribbon” committee is forming to plan for a future vocational/technical high school. That’s a positive and long overdue step, but it postpones action into the indefinite future, rather than investing in voc/tech now to keep kids in school.

The expenditure of $12 million at Carson Middle School to convert portable capacity into permanent bricks and mortar is not just a decision about saving money and eliminating higher operating costs. It is also a policy decision by the school board, an endorsement that a 1,200 student middle school is educationally optimal for Carson City.

The school board will consider the master plan committee’s recommendations and hear public comment at its March 28 meeting. If you care, be there.

• Abby Johnson is a resident of Carson City, and a part-time resident of Baker, Nevada. She consults on community development and nuclear waste issues. Her opinions are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of her clients.