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LAS VEGAS - It's 10:40 a.m., the floodgates are about to open, and Rancho High School Principal Robert Chesto is struggling to unfold a stack of cafeteria tables.

Chesto and two custodians work quickly, snapping tables into position and setting up chairs. But not fast enough.

''I don't think it's going to work,'' Chesto says, shaking his head. ''It's too late for today - we're just not going to have anywhere for all of them to sit.''

After three years of planning and two years of construction, how is it that the nine-week-old campus already is overcrowded?

''There's more kids than there's supposed to be,'' says Karina Monarred, a Rancho freshman.

''No, the school's not big enough,'' suggests her classmate, Karen Rodriguez.

In a way, they're both right, and that illustrates the challenge of planning and building schools in the fastest-growing metropolitan area in the nation.

The new Rancho High opened in August, a $75 million replacement for the original 52-year-old campus. The new two-story building is designed for 2,700 students. At the beginning of November, it was crammed with 3,333 students, necessitating the use of 22 temporary classroom trailers - which the principal calls ''learning cottages.''

''We could use 20 more,'' Chesto said.

A recent legislative audit determined the district could save as much as $350 million over five years in real estate acquisition costs if lawmakers require developers to set aside land for schools.

But whether the land comes free or at a price, the Clark County School District is expected to continue to struggle to house its fast-growing student population.

The Las Vegas-based school system adds about a dozen schools a year and has become the fifth-largest in the nation. This year, it topped 300,000 students at 325 campuses.

Campus overcrowding may only worsen in coming years as the district moves to add more full-day kindergarten classes and parents push for smaller class sizes.

One solution - to put more campuses on year-round schedules - is generally opposed by parents. About half of the district's more than 200 elementary schools operate year-round.

The district will go back to voters in two years. Proceeds from a $3.5 billion bond measure approved by voters in 1998 are about spent, and the district says it will be short by as many as eight elementary schools in 2008.

But it's not just construction money. To open a new school with enough classroom seats, the district must find available land, which is scarce and expensive, and then find contractors willing to bid on building schools when there's much more lucrative work on the Las Vegas Strip.

Then, the district must hope enrollment projections are on target. If just one new neighborhood sells more briskly than anticipated, it can mean hundreds of extra children showing up for school.

The revitalization of North Las Vegas neighborhoods surrounding Rancho High is the biggest contributing factor to the overcrowding at the school, Chesto said.

Privately, some school district officials blame Chesto for refusing to turn students away from Rancho magnet programs.

Rancho represents the district's new prototype campus, designed somewhat like a mall with classrooms clustered by their areas of study. They include popular aviation and medical careers magnet programs, a freshman academy, business and technology and visual and performing arts.

Chesto says he accepted about 1,000 students in the magnet program three years ago because no one from the district office told him to cap enrollment. The magnet programs are now limited to 850 students.

''If I had my way, we would have a seat here for every student that wants to enroll,'' he said.

Overcrowding has other repercussions. Rancho nearly failed a fire drill because students couldn't get far enough from the building to meet safety requirements. Without access to the athletic fields, which are under construction, students quickly filled the parking lot. And moving the overflow onto sidewalks next to the school wasn't an option because students are prohibited from leaving campus during the school day.

''People were bottlenecking in the doorways,'' said Rancho senior Michael Sausa, who estimated it took six minutes to get outside. ''If it were a real emergency, it would have been really dangerous.''

Rancho is far from the only high school suffering growing pains. Eldorado High School's lunchroom is so overcrowded that the traditional lunch period has been scrapped in favor of ending the school day an hour earlier. At day's end, students can stay for lunch or go home.

District officials acknowledge the cafeterias at the new prototype high schools don't provide sufficient student seating.

Residential development around the new schools is moving faster than anticipated, said Sharon Dattoli, director of zoning and demographics for the school district.

Dattoli and Clark County School Board President Ruth Johnson said they were taken aback during a recent visit to northwest Las Vegas to check construction at a 15,000-home master-planned community.

''We have to be prepared when kids from those neighborhoods show up for school,'' Dattoli said.

A new elementary school due to open in 2007 should provide some relief, and another campus is scheduled to open in the southwest region in 2008.

Rancho nearly failed a fire drill because students couldn't get far enough from the building to meet safety requirements.