WCSD gets $200M for new schools; questioned over costs

RENO, Nev. (KOLO) The Washoe County School District is one step closer to getting three new schools. The WC-1 Capital Funding Protection Committee voted 9-1 Thursday to approve $200 million to build the first schools funded directly with money from the WC-1 sales tax increase.

"It's really important for the Washoe County School District right now to move forward with these schools," Pete Etchart, the chief operating officer for WCSD, said. "We're behind. We have overcrowding. Obviously we have schools that are on multi-track year-round calendar. We have schools that are facing double sessions. So this will help with growth moving forward, but this is really about getting caught up also."

The district is hoping to break ground on the three schools as early as December. But getting the money approved didn't come easy. The oversight committee raised questions over the estimated price tags attached to the projects.

The middle schools, in Spanish Springs and Sun Valley, were originally estimated to cost $55 million each. New estimates put the projects at $80 and $85 million respectively. The elementary school, slated for South Meadows, went from $23 million to an estimated $34.4 million.

"To be almost double, not quite, but that big of an increase how do we explain that?" Charlene Bybee, a committee member and Sparks City Council Member, asked. "That's the question the voters are going to be asking. That's the question I'm asking."

The district cited rising construction costs are a contributing factor. That includes not only an increase in material cost, but rising land costs.

"As we become more of an urban area, we're just going to have to realize it's going to be harder and harder to find good, developable land," Etchart said. "Especially when we start talking about infill projects where there's not a lot of available land right now. Costs can be really expensive."

The area is also suffering from a labor shortage.

"There's tremendous pressure on construction value, but also the lack of labor to build those projects," Bill Rogers, managing principal with the Cummings Corporations, said. "So getting the labor in the market with lack of trades coming in, as well as tremendous clients such as Google, Panasonic, University of Nevada, WCSD all trying to build projects with a limited labor pool."

With rising costs and higher estimates, Bybee pressed the district on where a 'cap' would be placed on the cost of building future schools. Etchart said he didn't want to limit how much could be spent on a school, but he assured the committee every cost-saving measure was being considered.

Increased security and new technology contribute to the increased price tag.

"Some of these add to the cost initially, but they pay for themselves over and over and over again during the life of a school," Etchart said. "We've also worked really hard to make these schools the most cost efficient we can."

Architects have decreased the number of windows in the middle schools, for safety and to cut cost. Other design elements have been changed to save money. But district officials say cutting corners won't be beneficial in the long run.

"We as a school district cannot have inferior building products, because we have to build these schools to last 100 years," Etchart said. "We do not have a history in this district of replacing existing schools. So these schools need to be built to last, and operating costs are just as important as that initial cost."

The committee approved the funding with the condition the district come back with a more in depth, line by line break down of the rising cost versus savings expected through more efficient building. The WCSD Board of Trustees will have the final say on the funding for the schools during its October 11th meeting.