Booming Las Vegas Hits Jackpot With $656-Million Building Plan

By Millicent Lawton — October 16, 1991 9 min read

LAS VEGAS, NEV.--Before becoming director of construction management for the Clark County schools here, Lane Swainston spent two years working in hotel and casino development for Golden Nugget Inc.

The resort industry’s hyperkinetic, no-holds-barred approach to construction and remodeling, he recalled, felt “like going Mach 2 with your hair on fire.”

That description could just as easily apply to the project Mr. Swainston has been overseeing for the school system here in this booming city in the nation’s fastest-growing state.

Clark County is currently in the middle of a five-year, $656-million school-construction project that saw the opening of 15 schools last year and another 18 facilities including five high schools--this fall.

The opening of 18 permanent schools in one year outpaces any other school district in the nation, Clark County officials believe.

“This had never been done anywhere before on this scale,” Mr. Swainsten said.

The massive building project-made possible by the passage of a bend issue in 1988---is just one major sign of the enrollment explosion this southern Nevada district has seen in the past few years.

Another is the 823 additional teachers who began work in the 129,200-student district this fall.

In some ways, Clark County is typical of many school districts in rapidly growing Sunbelt areas, from Orange County, Fla., to Riverside County, Calif., that are struggling to cope with surging enrollments and a relentless demand for new classroom space.

But schools in Florida and California, as elsewhere, must also contend with budget problems caused by their states’ broader fiscal woes. Here in Clark County, though, money has been less of a concern, thanks to the bend issue.

As a result, Clark officials say their innovative efforts--which range from a partially underground elementary school to a high school designed to resemble a shopping mall--provide an example of the right way to go about accommodating mushrooming enrollments.

‘A Huge Increase’

Over the past half-dozen years, the 8,000-square-mile Clark County district has experienced an enrollment rise of more than 40 percent, from 91,569 in 1985 to this year’s expected 129,200. Between 1989 and 1990 alone, enrollment jumped by 10,576 students, or 9.5 percent.

By comparison, this year’s 5.8 percent enrollment growth seems almost paltry. As one district official noted, however, “By most districts’ standards, that’s a huge increase.”

Even the district’s professional demographers have been caught off guard by the growth. Enrollment projections revised last year show the district with 157,500 pupils in the 1994-95 school year. Estimates made in 1987 indicated the district would not have that many students until 1997.

The district’s growth mirrors that in the county as a whole. The population swelled 60 percent between 1980 and 1990, from 463,087 to 741,459, said Jeff Hardcastle, a planner with the Clark County Department of Comprehensive Planning.

The Las Vegas metropolitan area continues to grow at a rate of 6,000 people a month, according to local officials.

Much of the area’s recent growth is a result of in-migration, both from other parts of the United States and from foreign countries, officials said.

But even if all in-migration ceased, the county’s growing number of births each year would have a “significant effect upon enrollment” down the road, explained Barbara Snider, the district’s assistant director for demographics and zoning management.

Ten-Year Plan Accelerated

Faced with such a tremendous growth spurt, the district’s teughest challenge “has actually been supplying a seat for every student,” said Superintendent Brian Cram.

The district’s building program, which so far has yielded 33 new schools and 20 major additions to existing buildings, with 9 more buildings planned for next year, has eased that problem somewhat. This year is the first in three in which some elementary and junior-high schools have not had to stagger the starting times of different grades to free up classroom space, officials said.

But that improvement has come about only through herculean effort.

District officials initially set a 10-year building plan that construction consultants said was already very ambitions. Soon after the bond issue was approved by voters in 1988, however, the officials realized that the district could not wait 10 years for the plan’s projected 70,600 new seats.

So, while keeping the same goals, officials halved the timetable, thus turning a decade-long plan into a five-year initiative. Projections indicate that, by the time the last planned school opens its doors in 1995, they will have ended up providing 84 percent of the seats originally proposed, or room for 59,043 more students.

To expedite such a frenetic pace without going over budget, Mr. Swainsten said, his department got the backing of the school board to cut red tape wherever it could.

Cutting Time and Costs

The district solicited bids without waiting for final school-board approval, and did so in rapid succession for groups of two or three schools. That way, Mr. Swainston pointed out, contractors who had lost out on the first school in a group could come back the following week with another, possibly more competitive bid.

The district also had architects develop just a half-dozen “prototype” school designs that could be repeated-with slight adjustments--in numerous sites.

In addition, all construction-management work was done by Mr. Swainsten and a team of district employees that numbered up to 50.

Currently, the size of the staff has shrunk to fewer than 20, according to Mr. Swainston, who is leaving his position next month.

In the end, the district bested by between three and six months its own timetable for completing elementary schools (one year), juniorhigh schools (18 months), and senior-high schools (two years).

Moreover, the costs of even the speeded-up campaign were reasonable, district officials contend. The price tags for the permanent buildings worked out to an average of $4.7 million for an elementary school, $12.6 million for a junior high, and $22 million for a high school, according to Mr. Swainston.

In comparison, schools in Riverside County, which by state law must be at least 30 percent “relocatable” or “modular,” are being built for virtually the same cost, said Elliott Duchon, the California county’s assistant superintendent for data services and administrative support.

Visits to several of the new facilities suggest that the quality of the schools also has not suffered.

Buildings’ Rave Reviews

One of the new senior-high-school designs won a national architecture award, and the buildings have drawn rave reviews from the faculty who use them.

The low-rise buildings of earth-toned, split-faced block feature both fine architectural details, such as vaulted ceilings and skylights, and the latest in technology, for example classrooms wired for networked computers and theaters with professional-quality sound and lighting systems.

The schools were designed with security in mind, with few entrances and interior courtyards for student use between classes and for socializing.

Innovative designs also distinguish some of the new schools. One design for elementary schools is known as the “Earth Shelter,” because the back half of the school is below ground, Mr. Swainston said. Even so, an open courtyard and other features admit more natural light than in the district’s older schools.

The design for the school, which occupies just under five acres and has the playground on its roof, was generated in a federally funded competition to encourage energy efficiency, he said.

One high-school design came about when architects and designers tried to set students at ease.

“Where do kids feel most comfortable?” Mr. Swainston asked. “At the mall.”

Indeed, a visitor to Green Valley High School in suburban Henderson, which opened this fall, is struck by the resemblance, down to the big parking lot out front. The entrances to the two-story building are marked with kelly-green, arched metal canopies similar to those at a shopping mall.

Inside, balconies overlook a central courtyard, where a visitor almost expects to see a mall’s requisite fountains and information booth.

Staff and students alike seem won over by the schools.

LeRoy Hurd, the principal of Greenspun Junior High and a 28year veteran of the district, said “there’s no comparison” between Greenspun, opened this fall in Henderson, and other facilities.

“The kids are excited about being here,” Mr. Hurd said, adding that parents report that their children are eager to get to school. “The facility is making it possible"to have a better learning environment, he said.

Teachers of such subjects as physics and home economics also praised their facilities, which offer more work and storage space, among other amenities.

Still, aspects of the designs do have their critics. Members of the science department at Green Valley faulted the lack of ventilation in a chemical-storage room, for example.

Teachers Are ‘Dividend’

In addition to providing new facilities, the district has also been able to respond with new teachers.

Because they can be selective-this fall taking slightly more than 13 percent of the 6,000 applications received--district officials believe they get only the best teachers.

The county recruited in 30 states and Puerto Rico, focusing on areas where teaching jobs are scarce.

With Nevada’s relatively generous teacher salaries--ranked 12th in nation this year by the American Federation of Teachers--"it makes us very attractive,” Mr. Cram, the district’s superintendent, said.

The district’s expansion has enabled it to respond to its rapidly growing population of non-Englishspeaking students, Mr. Cram noted. Being able to cater to the needs of those students with new teachers “is a dividend of growth,” he said. “You can’t make that happen if you don’t have growth.” But the “greatest benefit” of the enrollment boom, Mr. Cram said, “is that people love a challenge, and our growth just sent us a charge of electricity through the district.”

“Even schools not involved in the growth felt the energy that came from new people and new ideas and new challenges,” he said.

Some Crowded Classes

Even new facilities and new teachers, though, cannot solve every problem related to an enrollment boom.

School crime has increased, for example, prompting aggressive security and disciplinary measures. Four existing high schools have been fit with video-surveillance systems similar to those in the Strip’s casinos.

Some schools that opened last fall are already full, and about 10 percent of the district’s classrooms are still overcrowded, Mr. Cram said.

One new school is being built next door to one opened in 1990. And the district is not likely to phase out the 600 portable buildings now in use because they provide a great deal of flexibility, said Ms. Snider, the district demographer.

The district has also turned to year-round schedules for elementary schools to try to better use classroom space. Twenty-four of the current 27 are on five-semester plans because of space limitations, officials said.

The district is currently conducting a study of the feasibility of using year-round schedules in all of the district’s schools, said a district spokesman, Ray Willis.

But the district has another nine new buildings, including eight new schools, scheduled to open next year, and, if growth holds steady, Mr. Cram said, Clark County schools will begin “to see light at the end of the tunnel.”

Even so, he added, the district could be in need of another bond issue as soon as building is completed in the current project. But he said he expected the community to be “very likely to support” it.

A version of this article appeared in the October 16, 1991 edition of Education Week as Booming Las Vegas Hits Jackpot With $656-Million Building Plan