Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2008 | As San Diego Unified schools stabilize from a year of turmoil that included a departed superintendent and an ousted chief administrative officer, the political build-up to a potential new school bond in November has lagged.

No citizens group has mobilized to drum up support, and no campaign strategy has been shaped. Staffers yanked a proposal to hire a former San Diego Unified employee to consult schools on the bond amid competing plans for how the district will build its case for more funds.

“There’s little input from anyone at this point,” said Jeannie Steeg, executive director of the local Administrators Association. Steeg sat on a task force leading up to a previous bond measure. “The timeline is extremely short, but at least they’re not starting from the bottom up.”

Time is tight as San Diego Unified wraps up work prescribed by Proposition MM, a $1.5 billion school construction and renovation bond that passed with flying colors in 1998. Putting a new bond on this year’s ballot has unique advantages. Voters are still paying off the old bond, so a new bond can be billed as a continuation, not a tax increase, Steeg said.

A 2008 bond also faces a lower threshold than most bond projects. State law sets the bar for school bonds at 55 percent approval, rather than two-thirds, but the proposal can only be put before voters in scheduled election years, said Jim Watts, the district’s director of architecture and planning.

District staffers are hopeful that a bond is still possible, and are gearing up for a November vote. After months of uncertainty, the district now has a new superintendent, Terry Grier, due to start work in March. School trustees will see a timeline for the bond next week. And early polls show that voters favor a bond, Watts said. But they also reveal that voters know little about the school district and its building needs, he said.

“We’ll need to get information out there,” Watts said, “to build up a base of informed voters.”

Technology, air conditioning, accessibility for the disabled and building upkeep top the school district’s want list. Proposition MM aimed $1.51 billion at an estimated $4 billion problem. That sum paid for 15 new or rebuilt schools, but left the district short on overdue repairs. Last July, then-Chief Administrative Officer Jose Betancourt estimated the district’s facility needs at nearly $3.7 billion. Since then, the numbers have climbed higher, Watts said, declining to cite a specific figure.

As enrollment stagnates across the school district, the need for new schools has fallen, Watts said. But individual communities are pushing for schools in their neighborhoods to prevent students from being bused far from home.

New housing in Tierrasanta will pull young military families into the area, prompting Tierrasanta Community Council President Eric Germain to call for two new elementary schools. That will cost an estimated $72 million. In City Heights, a handful of new elementary schools built under Proposition MM feed into high schools farther from the neighborhood, said Jay Powell, executive director of the City Heights Community Development Corp.

“The kids are going to the edge of their community to go to high school,” Powell said. “That needs a hard look … if you’re going to keep students engaged and lower the dropout rate. … And if you’re planning something as quickly as this November’s ballot, I don’t know what kind of vehicle they’re using for community engagement.”

District staff has done some legwork behind the scenes, building on the planning that went into Proposition MM. Unlike that bond, Watts said staff doesn’t need to start from scratch in assessing building needs. But public outreach for Proposition MM occurred far earlier, said trustee Mitz Lee. As a parent, Lee sat on committees overseeing the bond a year before the issue went to vote, she said.

“It’s not like what we did on MM,” said Linda Sturak, a retired principal who once served as the lead administrator on Proposition MM. “We spent an entire year doing a long-range … plan with community involvement. We had been to every school, had community meetings. … But a brand-new bond issue requires more time. This is more like an extension of a present bond measure, and it’s workable — if the board decides it’s something they want to do.”

Meanwhile, a key citizens group is absent. A timeline crafted by San Diego Unified in July estimated that a citizens advisory committee should have been formed in June or August 2007 to give input from September to December of the same year. Watts said the committee has yet to be created.

That group plays a crucial role in prodding voters to support a bond — a role that district staffers aren’t allowed to play. Under the law, once the school board votes to put a bond on the ballot, the school district is allowed to provide voters information about its needs, but not to campaign for their votes.

Trustees disagree over whether the school district should hire an outside consultant to map out a strategy to pass a new school bond. Bruce Husson, who spent 33 years working as a San Diego Unified administrator before serving as interim superintendent at Sweetwater Union High School District, was poised to take a one-year $50,000 contract to help plan the new bond before staffers pulled the item from the school board’s Feb. 12 agenda.

Sources close to the school district said the district had also been approached by Democratic political consultant Larry Remer for the job. Remer did similar work for the school district during Proposition MM. Lee proposed that a new school board subcommittee including community members do the work, “to avoid controversy and division” sparked by a battle over which consultant to hire.

And though fixing dowdy and decrepit schools seems likely to win support, key groups are wary of the district’s thick backlog of deferred maintenance — routine repairs and upkeep that are left undone. Such work was supposed to be part of Proposition MM, said Lani Lutar, president of the San Diego County Taxpayers Association, but the work was pushed aside as construction costs soared. Her group is eyeing the next bond measure more carefully, Lutar has said, and may be more hesitant to endorse the bond.

“Proposition MM … was sold to the public as a measure that would end deferred maintenance once and for all,” Lutar said. “That hasn’t happened.”

Meanwhile, active parents are still waiting to hear what the district’s bond plans are — and how they might help shape them.

“Nothing’s been asked of the PTA or the parents,” said Cindy McIntyre, president of the San Diego Unified Council of Parent Teacher Associations. Groups like hers are the foot soldiers for any school spending measure, yet McIntyre has heard little of the issue. “All we’ve heard are rumors in the wind.”

Please contact Emily Alpert directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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