Monday, May 12, 2008 | San Diego Unified is poised to place an estimated $1.51 billion facilities bond on the November ballot, riding the coattails of an unprecedented decade-long makeover for local schools.

But two major uncertainties hang over the ambitious plan, which has yet to be approved by the school board. The list of projects the bond will finance is unsettled. And the school district’s backlog of routine repairs, left undone when budgets drained, could undercut some voters’ enthusiasm for the bond.

Yet amid those uncertainties, supporters have already collected roughly $100,000 to pay for the campaign to persuade voters to support the measure.

Currently in its planning stages, the new bond would succeed Proposition MM, a popular measure of the same size passed in 1998. At the time, it was the largest bond ever undertaken by San Diego Unified. Since MM passed, taxpayers have paid up to $95.75 annually for each $100,000 assessed worth of property they own.

Those dollars built the vast new Lincoln High School, new elementary schools in City Heights, Chollas View and Golden Hill, and modernized more than 100 schools districtwide. Now, as student numbers stagnate, staffers are largely turning away from new construction and focusing instead on improving existing schools.

San Diego Unified is pressing to get the new bond onto the November ballot to avoid giving voters the impression that taxes would increase under the measure. If the district waited until the previous tax imposed by Proposition MM expired, taxpayers would see their bills jump if a new bond passed. Instead, school district staffers describe the new bond as an extension of the Proposition MM tax. Though the bond is tentatively estimated at $1.51 billion, district officials are currently calculating its exact size to avoid increasing the bills taxpayers already pay, said Cynthia Reed-Porter, communications liaison for the facilities management department at San Diego Unified.

School facilities needs vastly exceed what even the bond would provide. Fixing and modernizing every San Diego Unified building would cost roughly $5.5 billion, district staff estimated. Across the school district, parents and principals complain that older schools aren’t completely accessible for the disabled, technology is dated and buildings need seismic repairs to protect them during earthquakes.

To winnow down the $5.5 billion wish list generated by principals, district staffers and outside consultants, San Diego Unified is enlisting parents and principals to offer ideas and rank what schools need, and tapping an advisory committee to weigh which projects appeal to likely voters. Crafting the project list is a balancing act between the mundane necessities of wiring and plumbing and flashier projects that attract interest — and votes.

“Some stuff has to get done tomorrow. Some will never get done. There’s everything from stuff we need to do tomorrow to pie-in-the-sky needs,” said Larry Remer, a political consultant hired by an outside group, Education and Children First, to help advocate for the bond. “But if we’re going to do a billion and a half dollars (of work), which billion and a half do we do?”

Long-delayed repairs are likely to figure in the bond proposal, but could damage the bond’s chances at the ballot box. The routine repairs are called deferred maintenance, which San Diego Unified intended to eliminate during Proposition MM. When MM was crafted, the overdue repairs were expected to cost $258 million.

But when student enrollment plunged, so did budgets, and San Diego Unified diverted money from maintenance. Under-funding the repairs produced a backlog of deferred maintenance, now estimated by San Diego Unified to cost $104 million. To diminish it, the district is likely to include some deferred maintenance in the new bond.

Doing so could jeopardize the support of the San Diego Taxpayers Association, which backed Proposition MM on the understanding that deferred maintenance would be vanquished. Its president is skeptical of the $104 million figure in light of last year’s dramatically higher estimate of $670 million in deferred maintenance.

“They’re either playing games with the numbers, or they’re clueless about the condition of their facilities,” said Lani Lutar, president of the county Taxpayers Association.

Jim Watts, San Diego Unified’s director of architecture and planning, said the higher number encompassed both deferred maintenance and all major repairs and replacements, which includes building systems that are expected to last 20 years or more, and upgrades such as replacing ventilation with air conditioning or traditional heating units with energy-efficient systems.

Asked why the districts’ deferred maintenance costs seem paradoxically to have dropped, despite concerns about diverting funds from maintenance during budget crises, Watts said the earlier estimates during Prop. MM weren’t precise. In a letter to voiceofsandiego.org last August, former maintenance director William Dos Santos called the $258 million figure “politically adjusted SWAG … hastily put together.” The taxpayers association isn’t convinced.

The repair boondoggle is one of several challenges before San Diego Unified as it goes to bat for a second $1.51 billion bond. To ensure its success, the district must juggle crowd-pleasers with necessities, and reassure the Taxpayers Association that schools will conquer the backlog of repairs, said school board president Katherine Nakamura.

“There needs to be some excitement” among parents and voters, Nakamura said. “You don’t want bureaucrats to handle all the decision-making. But we also need deferred maintenance. If we ignore it, the issue is only going to get worse.”

To trim down San Diego Unified’s $5.5 billion wish list for the bond, facilities staffers are meeting with community members at San Diego high schools across the city, asking them to rank potential projects and offer ideas of their own. Parents and principals gathered at Serra High School complained vocally about stuffy, overheated trailers that lack air conditioning and poorly designed student drop-off zones that clog streets with traffic.

Watts presented the different types of projects that the bond could cover, displayed on posters around the Serra High library. To show which projects they wanted most, Watts asked attendees to post stickers on the posters: green for high priority, orange for medium priority, and blue for low priority. Green stickers quickly speckled the poster for air conditioning.

“The main building has air conditioning, but we have 10 bungalows that don’t,” said Alan Richmond, principal of Vista Grande Elementary School. “It’s the haves and the have-nots.”

Facilities staffers will develop different scenarios of which projects would be included in the bond, and the school board will ultimately decide which to adopt, said Cynthia Reed-Porter, the communications liaison for facilities management in San Diego Unified. To put the bond measure on the November ballot, the school board must vote by Aug. 8 to move forward.

Compared to the lengthy public buildup to Proposition MM, there has been little public fanfare over this year’s potential bond. Though San Diego Unified recommended that a citizens’ advisory committee be formed last summer to provide public input, public outreach didn’t start until April, when staffers began holding meetings scattered through the city. Teachers union president Camille Zombro said the outreach is too little, too late. It’s one reason that Zombro withdrew the teachers union from a district task force charged with spreading information about the bond earlier this year.

“It has not been a very inclusive process,” Zombro said. “The nuts and bolts planning has already happened, and they’re just starting to roll it out to (school) sites. They came up with their list, and now they’re getting support for that list.”

Two key groups are still being formed. One is a campaign effort called Education and Children First, a committee outside the school district that will actively promote the bond. The external committee exists because under California law, public employees and consultants are prohibited from engaging in campaign activities using state funds.

Though the group is still gaining members, Nakamura said Education and Children First has already raised roughly $100,000 for an extensive campaign including signs and radio advertising. Remer estimated that $1.6 million was raised during the Proposition MM campaign. His goal is to raise $1.3 million for Education and Children First.

The second group, called the Ad Hoc Committee, will serve as community advisors on the bond. Members are community leaders nominated by the school board, and include 10 additional members selected to represent key groups such as the Parent Teachers Association, the Taxpayers Association, the California Charter School Association and the Business Roundtable for Education. Board members Nakamura and Mitz Lee also serve on the committee. Its role is to give input on potential bond projects.

Taxpayers Association president Lutar echoed Zombro’s criticisms of the timing of the bond preparation. She worried that outreach to the public was relatively late, and noted that the advisory committee has yet to meet.

“Preparing for a bond measure in a hasty manner, in the way that they’re doing, doesn’t generally bode well with the voters. And it isn’t looked upon favorably by the Taxpayers Association,” Lutar said. “… If they don’t understand what stakeholders believe is most important for the district, it’s more likely that after the bond measure passes, there would be pressure to change the specific projects that voters approved. … Mid-project, principals say, ‘You know what? This facility should be a gym instead.’ It leads to increased costs.”

School bonds that seek 55 percent approval are typically successful in California, where 83 percent of such bonds were approved between 2001 and 2007, according to the nonpartisan policy analysis group EdSource. Proposition MM was particularly well-received, winning 78 percent of the vote in 1998. The new bond could both benefit and suffer from this year’s economic downturn, Remer said.

“The budget crisis (for schools) will create a sense of urgency,” he said, “but the flip side is whether the overall economic crisis will make voters wary of raising taxes. No question they’re eager to help schools that are in trouble. The real question is, how much do they think they’ll be able to afford in hard times?”

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at a letter to the editor.

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