VUSD lowers price tag of bond measure
Visalia Unified school board gets first look at ballot language for possible $109 million bond measure to build a fifth high school
By Reggie Ellis @Reggie_SGN
VISALIA – Visalia Unified took another step closer to placing a nine-figure bond measure on the November ballot, and it will cost less than original estimates.
The Visalia Unified School District (VUSD) Board of Trustees got their first look at the new ballot measure language that will ask voters for a $109 million bond measure to build a fifth high school and modernize 18 other schools that are more than 25 years old. The amount listed in the measure is far less than the $171 million the district surveyed voters on in December.
The full text of the measure is as follows: “To protect quality education with funding that cannot be taken by the State, shall Visalia Unified School District: upgrade classrooms, labs and computer systems to support programs in science, technology, English, arts and math; and upgrade/construct high school classrooms/other school facilities to prevent overcrowding; and modernize/construct classrooms/educational facilities to meet current safety codes; by issuing $109,000,000 in bonds at legal rates, with independent oversight, no money for administrators’ salaries, and all funds staying local?”
VUSD Superintendent Dr. Todd Oto said the cost of a new high school remains at $150 million but the project should be a 50% match with the state, only requiring $75 million in local funds generated by the bond. Oto said the new comprehensive high school would include a full gymnasium, theater, stadium and pool.
“What we have heard from stakeholders is ‘don’t cut corners, go all in,’’ Oto said.
The other $34 million in bonds would be used to leverage $50 million in modernization funds from the state to modernize science labs at the middle schools and make safety improvements at every campus in the wake of the deadliest school shootings in U.S. history.
Greg Price, president of the Visalia Unified Teachers Association, said teachers were reluctant to support the bond measure until they know what will be included on the project list.
“The big thing I have heard from teachers is no shiny new high school if you don’t fix up our [existing] property,” Price said.
While no site specific projects were listed at the meeting, a draft listed the following types of modernization projects for 18 schools, including Mt. Whitney High School, La Joya Middle School, Green Acres Middle School, Divisadero Middle School, Global Learning Charter Academy, and 13 elementary schools eligible for matching funds from the state: wheelchair accessibility, roof repair, upgrade electrical; repair and replace heating and ventilation systems, plumbing, play equipment, libraries, physical education facilities, paving; install new public address systems, energy conservation systems, new technology.
Board member Juan Guerrero said many of the teachers and parents had voice their concerns about safety improvements, which he was glad to see listed among the types of projects. Safety improvements included replacing or repairing security and surveillance systems, exterior lighting systems, installing panic door, upgrade fire suppression systems and kitchen equipment.
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 the average homeowner about $36 per year for the next 24 years. If passed, the new bond would cost the average homeowner another $61 per year for the next 30 years and a total of $97 per year until Measure E is paid off in 2042.
Voter surveys conducted by Godbe Research, a West Coast market research firm, said about two-thirds of voters support a $101 million bond measure, between 63% and 66.9%, but initially only 53% of voters supported a bond at rate of $97 per year. Oto said VUSD has also given 37 presentations on the bond to service clubs, community groups and parent-teacher associations as well as industry leaders, all of whom were supportive of the bond measure.
Oto said the district has been able to fund the new construction of elementary schools with developer fees but that larger schools, such as middle and high schools, require more money than the fees can provide. Without a bond measure, Oto said VUSD would have to reset the boundaries for its high school districts to more evenly distribute the student population. While Golden West and Mt. Whitney are below the optimal 1,800 enrollment mark, El Diamante (2,014) and Redwood (2,271) both exceed it. Between the four comprehensive high schools, VUSD is more than 400 students over the 1,800 mark for each campus.
The district already owns 70 acres on the northeast corner of Akers Street and Riggin Avenue that is slated for the fifth high school, across the street from Ridgeview Middle School, which opened last fall. Even without a bond measure, Groeber said the district is legally required to accommodate all new students who enroll in the district.
Oto pointed out that VUSD’s bond would be the only local bond on the ballot for Visalia voters as no other public districts — such as Kaweah Delta, COS or City of Visalia — are putting a measure to vote on the November election. VUSD will also have the unfortunate distinction of being the first entity to attempt a bond under new election rules. The Elections code was amended, effective Jan. 1, 2018, to require that ballot summaries for bond measures meet the same 75-word limit that applies to initiatives and referendums. Because the annual debt service payment and tax rate can vary year to year based on fluctuations in property values for 30 years, “potentially reporting 60 different numbers (each of which would count as a word), as well as including other legally required language and descriptions of the bond projects is not practical within 75 words.”
In his letter to assistant superintendent Robert Groeber, Jonathan Edwards of Government Financial Strategies said there is currently an effort in the state legislature to amend the Elections Code to exclude bond measures but may not happen in time to meet requirements for the November ballot. The board was planning on taking up the issue of a bond at its June 26 meeting, but will likely have to wait until its July 24 meeting, which is before the statutory deadline of August 10, 88 days before the election, but after July 9, the preferred deadline for the Tulare County elections office. If the amendment doesn’t happen in time, Edwards said the ballot language will use a smaller amount of $105.3 million instead of $109 million to take an average that will be less than the highest variable year for the higher amount.
Oto noted there will be some competition for voter attention this fall as the state is seeking a $4 billion housing bond, there is a voter initiative for an $8.9 billion water bond and voters just approved a $4 billion park bond in the June primary.