VUSD school bond’s passage is probable but not definite
Voter survey shows narrow margin of victory for Visalia Unified bond measure in November 2018
By Reggie Ellis @Reggie_SGN
VISALIA – If the Visalia Unified School District were to hold another bond election today, the measure would probably pass, but not by much.
Brian Godbe of Godbe Research, a West Coast market research firm, presented the results of a voter survey to gauge Visalians’ attitudes toward a 2018 school bond measure to the VUSD school board at its Jan. 23 meeting. According to the survey of more than 800 Visalia voters, less than 58% said they would vote yes on the measure in an upcoming election, a narrow 3% margin over the 55% needed to pass a bond measure under Proposition 39. Less than a quarter said they would “definitely” vote yes while about one-third said they “probably” would vote yes.
Godbe recommended “substantial communications” to explain the need to upgrade the district’s facilities before placing any measure on the ballot.
The survey tested a draft of the measure language which read as follows: “To protect education locally with funding that cannot be taken by the State, shall Visalia Unified School District – Upgrade and construct high school classrooms and other school facilities to prevent overcrowding; Provide modern libraries and science labs for students; Modernize all schools to meet 21st Century standards; and Bring classroom computers and instruction technology up-to-date – by issuing $171 million dollars in bonds at legal rates, with independent oversight, no money for administrators’ salaries, and all funds staying local?”
“Maintaining the quality of education” ranked just below “maintaining a low crime rate” in terms of importance with those surveyed with “providing safe, well-maintained classrooms and school facilities” coming in a close third. Those three top tier issues ranked above “protecting local residential property values” and, more importantly for the success of the bond, “preventing local tax increases.”
Two-thirds of those surveyed agreed that VUSD is providing quality education now, with 41.7% being “somewhat favorable” and 31.5% being “very favorable.” Respondents were less agreeable when it comes to whether or not VUSD needs additional funding to maintaining that quality. Just 56.1% of those surveyed agreed that the district needs additional funding, a 1% margin over the 55% required to pass a bond measure on Proposition 55. Only a quarter “strongly agreed” while about one-third “somewhat agreed.”
More than 55% supported modernizing classrooms and libraries, replacing leaky roofs, provide classroom computers and instructional technology, class size reduction, making schools more energy efficient, and improving visual and performing arts. Some of the uses from the bond measure that people were not in favor of were constructing new stadiums at Mt. Whitney and El Diamante high schools, building a new music classroom and a performing arts center at Golden West, renovating classrooms for 21st Century learning, and updating bathrooms as well as building new bathrooms.
The district says it needs a $159 million bond measure to build a fifth high school and continue to modernize schools that are more than 25 years old. With the construction of seven elementary schools in the last 15 years, only 11 of VUSD’s elementary schools are over the target enrollment of 650 students per campus. Middle schools are still over enrollment targets of 900 students despite opening Ridgeview in the fall of 2016. The real problem lies at the high school, where half of the high schools are over the target enrollment of 1,800 by at least 200 students. As the money from the Measure E continues to modernize many of the aging elementary schools, a new bond measure will be needed to modernize 11 elementary campuses that will not be covered by Measure E funds.
Additionally, those surveyed criticized the district for wanting to increase taxes through 2047, even after the State and district have already passed billions of dollars for schools (57/58%); that the school board can’t be trusted with the money and haven’t finished the projects it promised from the last bond (53%); that public employee salaries, benefits and pensions are out of control (48%); that the improved economy and property values are already benefitting the district’s revenues (51.3%); and that the money won’t benefit schools in their neighborhood (48%) because all of the money from the last bond went to northwest (45%).
This would be the district’s third bond measure in the last 20 years and bring the total to an estimated $260.6 million in local bond revenue, which would be matched by an estimated $300 million in State funding. Measure G, a $41.5 million bond was passed by Visalians in 1999, was paid off on Aug. 1. Visalia Unified voters are still paying for Measure E, a $60.1 million school bond approved in 2012. Measure E will cost homeowners an average of $36 per year for the next 24 years.
Total salaries and benefits for district employees is $233.41 million, and make up about 80% of the district’s expenses for the 2016-17 school year. The district annually contributes over $15 million to the State Teachers Retirement System (STRS), $5 million to the California Public Employees Retirement System (CalPERS) for classified employees and another $9 million per year for its own retirement program, about 10% of the district’s expenses.
Local revenue, including property taxes, are on the rise in Visalia and have tripled in the last three years from $4.1 million in 2015 to $14.3 million in 2017. Some of that local revenue is also developer fees, which the district uses as its primary funding source for new elementary schools. In the last 15 years, VUSD has built nine schools including seven elementary schools, a middle school and a high school. About half of those schools have been built in the northwest using Mooney Boulevard and Highway 198 as the center points of the city. The only new schools constructed in that time period were Ridgeview Middle School and the new science building at Redwood High School.
Support for a bond measure changed depending on the rate of additional property taxes. Six out of 10 respondents were likely to vote for a rate of $29 per $100,000 of assessed value per year over the term of the bond. But add $10 to the rate ($39) and the yes votes drop below the 55% threshold (53.2%). At $60, one of the rates discussed with the trustees at the Aug. 22 board meeting, the approval rate drops to 44%.
Debt payments on Measure E will be made through 2042, meaning there will be a 24-year overlap between it and any new bond placed on the November 2018 ballot. If a new school bond were to pass at the maximum rate of $60 per $100,000 of assessed value, that would add another $65 per year to property taxes in the district, a total of $101 for the average homeowner, or about $8 per month.
More than 55% of those surveyed were homeowners, over the age of 50, and did not have children in their household.
Godbe said the decision on whether or not to put the bond measure on the June or November 2018 ballot was negligible and probably a moot point with the deadlines for primary election fast approaching. “Either election could be viable, but the November election would provide the District with additional time to conduct community outreach effort to explain the facilities needs to the community and the district’s approach.”