Wednesday, July 23, 2008 | On rainy days at Knox Elementary School, teacher Linda Boswell carefully moves her students’ desks away from the leaky point in the ceiling of an aging trailer, just in case it crashes open.

On hot days, her coworker Donna Sanders tries fruitlessly to keep the computers from overheating in a crowded lab. School runs nearly year-round at Knox, but the buildings lack air conditioning.

Wind is a double blessing, Boswell said: It cools the kids and sweeps the termite droppings away from the peeling portable classrooms that house nearly half of the students at this southeast San Diego school.

Dingy wooden steps make half those classrooms inaccessible to kids in wheelchairs; roughly a third of the trailers date back to 1958 or earlier. The windows are glazed with lead and the tiles contain asbestos; if either are fixed, children need to be moved elsewhere to avoid the toxins.

“These children come from homes that aren’t that nice,” Sanders said. “So we want the school to be a nice, secure place. And we don’t have that.”

School board members agree that schools like Knox need help, and are backing a facilities bond to meet its needs. None have openly opposed the estimated $2.1 billion measure which is slated for the November ballot. It succeeds a slightly smaller $1.51 billion bond, Proposition MM, and is estimated to charge property owners the same annual rate they pay today for MM — $60 for every $100,000 their property is worth.

But the specific details presented to voters about how those billions will be spent have become a point of contention on the school board, whose members have twice rebuked San Diego Unified staff about the details of the bond list. After delaying a vote Monday, the board will reconsider the list Wednesday.

Disputing the details is emblematic of the San Diego Unified board, whose members have sometimes been accused of micromanaging the district instead of trusting staff. Though the board is likely to approve the list Wednesday, the delay has unnerved staff, who must submit the resolution to the county registrar by August 8.

Under California law, to pass a facilities bond with 55 percent of voters instead of 66 percent, school districts must enumerate how bond money will be spent. That list isn’t ironclad: Districts can alter them if needs change, as San Diego Unified did during Proposition MM by canceling two new schools when enrollment dropped. But the lists are a public pledge that voters and taxpayers remember. And the details they contain can become selling points or liabilities in the campaign to refurbish and replace schools.

“Four out of five voters don’t have a child in our schools,” said school board member Luis Acle. “We need to perfect this. Is this a finished product? I don’t think so.”

In the draft of its new bond, San Diego Unified makes a multitude of promises. It plans to modernize classrooms with wireless Internet and other technology; to make bathrooms and classrooms accessible to the disabled; to replace dated fire alarms that don’t include strobe lights for deaf students; to repair frayed wiring; to install air conditioning at eastern schools that broil in summertime, and hundreds of other projects.

New plans are lodged in that lengthy list: Central Elementary School could be closed and its students incorporated into Wilson Middle School, which would become a K-8 school. Underused schools where enrollment has plunged could be converted into virtual schools that rely heavily on technology. But finding those plans in the list is sometimes difficult, even for board members accustomed to poring over school documents.

John de Beck was puzzled when staffers told him that high schools are slated to enjoy 15 new programs that link the classroom to careers such as tourism, construction and the culinary arts, and showed him drawings of solar-paneled buildings at Morse and Scripps Ranch high schools. Lists for each of the high schools said they would be retrofitted for career technical education, but didn’t include the details that staffers shared.

“I can only assume that these projects are buried in the list,” de Beck said, paging through the list at a board meeting. “That bothers me.”

If the school board approves the bond proposal Wednesday, voters will be posed with a list that runs the gamut from security cameras to kitchen grease traps required by city codes. Twenty million dollars is estimated to go toward upgrading fire alarms, part of $454 million devoted to student health and safety; more than $400 million is earmarked for classroom technology, including wireless Internet.

Those gadgets are already available to newer schools such as Cherokee Point Elementary School, where music teacher Dianne Park showed off her classroom. Cherokee Point was built under the last bond, and furnished its classes with document cameras that can project a paper, object or website for a whole class to view, voice amplifiers that make teachers easier to understand, and slates that students can use to highlight or write over a digital projection.

Beforehand, “you had to be right in front of them pointing to the page, and one kid is lost, and one kid is bored. This is phenomenal,” Park said, pulling up slideshows and websites that she uses in class. “If I left here, I might have to stop teaching. Other schools might not have this stuff!”

And more than half a billion is planned for major repairs and upgrades, such as replacing more than 200 aging portable classrooms at schools such as Knox. Repairs have dogged San Diego Unified as it seeks support for the new bond; the San Diego County Taxpayers Association believes the school district broke a promise and didn’t spend enough of its own money on routine repairs during Proposition MM. To vanquish the repair backlog, estimated at nearly $700 million, San Diego Unified has adopted a new way of tracking repair needs and pledged $190 million of school district and state funds to buttress the $500 million in anticipated bond funds.

Yet even a $2.1 billion bond would provide only a fraction of the $5.5 billion in repairs and upgrades needed for San Diego Unified schools, according to district staff. Some are extensions of work that Proposition MM began.

Making all San Diego Unified schools accessible for the disabled would cost roughly $800 million, according to school district staff. But San Diego Unified has planned to spend only $230 million on the need, focusing mainly on high schools such as Crawford, where wheelchairs can’t mount the wooden bleachers overlooking the athletic fields and many bathrooms are barred from access with dividers separating two narrow doors. An additional $67 million is available from the state.

Proposition MM allocated roughly $70 million to make schools accessible, Watts said, but the needs far outstripped the funding. MM funds helped pay for handicapped parking, accessible bathrooms and water fountains, he said. But regulations have changed since the last bond was passed, outmoding bathrooms and classrooms that made the grade beforehand. And stadiums and portable classrooms were largely overlooked.

At Knox Elementary, Sanders remembers the snafus from MM. But as she surveys the computer lab on a sweltering day, she hopes that they remember the schools’ needs first — the leaking roofs and the dilapidated trailers that need to be replaced.

“I don’t want the public to say no,” she said.

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

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