Sun Valley gets its own middle school thanks to WC-1 funding

By Joe McCarthy Nevada Capital News Education Beat Reporter

Desert Skies MS - image - Nevada Capital News, Joe McCarthy

This past Wednesday, September 18, 2019, Washoe County School District (WCSD) Board of Trustees, staff, parents, family members, numerous students and teachers gathered to cut the ribbon and hold an open house in celebration of the opening of the new Desert Skies Middle School in Sun Valley

For years middle school-aged students in Sun Valley have had to attend either Traner or Sparks Middle Schools, a lengthy trip. Now, the rapidly growing community of Sun Valley finally has its own middle school. School officials commented on the large crowd, a reflection of the pride the Sun Valley residents have in their own new middle school. 

Desert Skies MS – Image, Nevada Capital News, Joe McCarthy

The Washoe County School District is the second-largest school district in the state, second only to the Clark County School District. It has close to 67,000 students, 3,500 full-time classroom teachers, 96 support staff (instructional coaches, librarians, counselors, administrators, etc.). The district’s annual operating budget of $662,000,000 measures out to be $9,900 per student.  

The new school opened with a student population of approximately 1,000 pupils with a capacity of 1,400 students. There are 36 classrooms, 3 music rooms, 3 special ed rooms, labs, art rooms and a gym with the requisite physical training features. It is 189,000 square feet in total size with energy-efficient measures that include ground source heat pumps for geothermal heating, a ventilator system for natural cooling and daylighting windows to reduce artificial lighting needs year-round. 

Desert Skies MS – image – Nevada Capital News, Joe McCarthy

Passage of the 2016 WC-1 ballot initiative made possible the construction of Desert Skies Middle School, which is part of the first phase of the Washoe County Infrastructure PlanIn the November 2016 general election, a majority of voters in Washoe County passed WC-1,  a ballot initiative that increased the local sales tax by 0.54 percent.

Over the next decade, the infrastructure plan means the construction of three new high schools, two more middle schools, and nine new elementary schools. The countywide ballot measure also provides for the upgrade of several existing facilities, to include expansion of Damonte Ranch High School. 

According to Chief Operating Officer Pete Etchart, “It has been ten years since the last school opening.”    

WCSD’s construction projects are already having a substantial impact on school overcrowding. According to the district’s acting superintendent, Dr. Kristen McNeil, “this school, along with the new Sky Ranch Middle School in Spanish Springs and Nick Poulakidas Elementary School in south Reno, provides overcrowding relief to approximately 15,000 students at 25 schools.”     

Desert Skies MS – image – Nevada Capital News, Joe McCarthy

Nevada Assembly Majority Leader, Teresa Benitez-Thompson was a featured speaker at the ribbon-cutting. She and the late Nevada legislator Debbie Smith were prominent champions who worked for the passage of WC-1.  Assemblywoman Benitez-Thompson said, “As a public official, I am proud of the district for delivering on the promise of WC-1. The implementation of its infrastructure plan as evidenced by the opening of this wonderful middle school proves to our residents that our school district is practicing full, transparent accountability. As we work towards the 2021 legislative session, we need to keep the momentum going. It is all about giving our students the best opportunity possible to achieve.”

The building of new schools reduces school overcrowding. Such construction is essential, but it is only one aspect of addressing excessive class sizes and untenable pupil-teacher ratios. More work needs to be done to successfully bridge the achievement gaps for every demographic in Nevada’s fast-growing public school system. The latest data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress show that Nevada schools are improving on the whole. The data reports also imply the obvious: underfunding schools cause poor pupil-teacher ratios.

To benefit those teachers who are dealing with large class sizes, successful schools fully utilize instructional coaches, social workers, librarians and school counselors as proven catalysts at improving the quality of a classroom teacher’s personalized professional development. Research shows such teamwork enhances the real possibility of raising overall student academic achievement.

How to win state funding that meaningfully addresses overcrowding is an elusive outcome.

There are no silver bullets for closing the achievement gap. There are unbiased, in-depth studies aplenty that suggest when communities and states provide sufficient funding to build needed school facilities and address class size reduction strategies, more students graduate high school with the needed language, problem-solving, mathematics, science, and most importantly, civic engagement skills. For the community and the district, the return on investment far exceeds the cost of that investment.     

Overall, Nevada is ranked 35th in K-12 achievement in the 2019 National Report Card, Quality Counts as reported in Education Week. The statewide funding budget is 2.3 billion dollars which equates to approximately $9,200 per student statewide, ranking Nevada 47th in per-student spending. Quality Counts gave Nevada a score of 67 percent and a grade of D+.  The national average is 76.5 percent and a grade of C.   

The debate over school funding and school taxes to address public education’s needs continues to be polarizing. Recently, Nevada’s 2019 Legislature revised the state’s school funding formula with the passage of SB 543. It also set up the creation of the Commission on School Finance/Funding to tackle the difficult challenges that face legislators in the 2021 legislative session to make progress on reducing class sizes and improving learner outcomes, especially accounting for the underserved populations statewide.