It’s election season in the Biggest Little City, and among the door-to-door campaign volunteers, campaign slogan bumper stickers and brightly colored yard signs is the message to “Vote Yes on WC-1.” Washoe County question one asks Reno voters to allow the Board of County Commissioners of Washoe County to increase sales tax by 0.54 percent in order to fund Washoe County School District projects.
One in five Washoe County schools is severely overcrowded, according to Save Our Schools Washoe, a PAC dedicated to ensuring the passage of WC-1.
“It’s time that northern Nevada comes together as a community and says that we value education and that it’s a priority,” said Kristie Sheltra, a parent advocate for WC-1. “It is the only way we’re going to have economic success, it’s the only way we’re going to keep our property values, it’s a matter of community pride and most of all it touches all of the children in Washoe County.”
SOS Washoe claims that students are packed into classrooms that have asbestos, failing ventilation and leaking roofs. The campaign also said a third of Washoe County Schools have not been renovated in over 30 years.
“Sixty-five thousand children are sitting in classrooms that are overcrowded, that have leaky roofs, some have no safety fencing around their schools and it is just a matter of saying to these kids, ‘We value education, education is everything and it is what will propel you in life,’” Sheltra said.
WC-1 proposes a sales and use tax increase from which revenue would go directly to the Washoe County School District to build and renovate schools.
The sales tax would increase to 8.265 percent, a rate unseen by any county in
Nevada. Throughout the nation, only 10 states charge more than 8.265 percent sales tax, according to Tax Foundation, a nonpartisan research group. Washoe County’s current rate is 7.725 percent. The increased tax rate would be permanent if the question passes.
“You have to pay for the services in your community; you pay taxes so that we can have a police department, you pay taxes so that we can have libraries, a fire department, roads, all those services are paid for through taxes,” Sheltra said. “The schools need to be a priority and part of those taxes.”
SOS Washoe has partnered with Educators for Washoe Schools to raise over $886,000 to help convince voters the increase in sales tax is necessary to ensure the success of Washoe County students.
“It isn’t right that we’ve ignored our schools for so long that they’ve gotten to this breaking point. It’s embarrassing, it’s shameful. Our community needs to stop overlooking this and settle it once and for all and create this tax that doesn’t have a sunset, so it’s a forever tax, but it will forever fix our problem,” Sheltra said. “We’ll be able to build new schools when we’re at the maximum capacity. When we have an upgrade that we need, we’ll be able to do it.”
The hike in sales tax is not the only battle WC-1 has had to face this election season. A lawsuit in the Washoe County District Court will decide whether the ballot question is allowed to be a part of the upcoming election.
Reno resident Jeff Church filed a lawsuit against the county to strike the question from the ballot. Church claims the county broke the law regarding how committees in charge of writing the arguments in favor and against the tax increase were organized.
The county appointed four members to the committee in charge of writing the argument in support of the tax increase in WC-1. The country also appointed two members to the committee to write the opposition to the tax increase, Church being one of the individuals.
State law says each committee in charge of writing the rebuttal and in-favor statements must be composed of three individuals. The law also states that if the county commission is unable to appoint three members to each committee, it may appoint less than three people to the committee but not more than three.
Tracy Figler, the other member of the committee, and Church could not come to an agreement on their rebuttal against the tax increase even after the county commission said it extended the deadline several times.
The result of the committee’s inability to come to a conclusion is the county’s decision not to include a rebuttal for WC-1 on the ballot.
The committees were formed and began writing their separate arguments in April, yet Church’s lawsuit was filed months later.
There is no information on how long it will take for a decision on the lawsuit to be made.
Despite the lawsuit, SOS Washoe and the Educators for Washoe Schools are not halting their race to stop overcrowding in local schools — the campaign has set a goal to raise $1.4 million by Nov. 8. The continuing efforts and large financial goal are a result of previously failed ballot questions relating to the funding of Washoe County schools.
In 2004, Washoe voters rejected several ballot questions asking them to vote on funding for Washoe County schools. One of the ballot questions was an amendment to the Nevada Constitution that would have required the Nevada Legislature to fund the operation of public schools before funding other parts of the state budget. Even without the proposed tax increase, voters shot down the question.
“If people are voting no, it is a shortsighted vision for our community,” Sheltra said. “They’re not looking at the fact that their property values will never increase, they’re not having any pride in their community and this will lessen the economic growth of Reno because we are not valuing education. People are not going to want to move here; businesses are not going to want to move here if we have schools that are in shambles.”
With the lawsuit and rocky past, WC-1 is still showing favorable signs in a new poll released Sept. 19 from The Tarrance Group. The poll found 55 percent of voters in favor of the tax increase. The same poll conducted in March found only 45 percent of voters in favor of the ballot question. The polls have a 4.9 percent margin of error.
The outcome of WC-1 may currently be in the hands of a judge, but supporters of the question and the SOS Washoe campaign remain strong in their hopes that their citizens will vote to fund Washoe County schools despite the largest sales tax increase seen in all Nevada counties.
Rachel Spacek can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @TheSagebrush.