Wednesday, Nov. 5, 2008 | Superintendent Terry Grier already knows which fixes he wants to make first with the $2.1 billion facilities bond that seemed bound to pass Tuesday night: The bathrooms that Grier said students complained to him about, over and over, when he visited San Diego Unified schools.

“You don’t understand how bad those bathrooms are,” Grier said, describing doors that nearly fall off the stalls, aging tiles and dirty grout.

Despite an economic downturn that had threatened to dissuade voters from approving taxes, it looks like Grier will be able to fix up those bathrooms and do a whole lot more, with a hefty new facilities bond that was expected to win Tuesday night. Proposition S promises to modernize classrooms with wireless Internet; to make bathrooms and classrooms accessible to the disabled; to rid schools of asbestos, frayed wiring and dilapidated trailers; to install air conditioning at eastern schools that broil in summertime, and hundreds of other projects.

The new bond was winning with more than 63 percent of the vote late Tuesday night, with roughly 26 percent of precincts counted, and its proponents were already heralding its success, confident that their early lead would not dissolve.

“It would be absolutely astonishing if the numbers changed,” said Scott Barnett, who helped consult the bond campaign, in a Tuesday night interview. The campaign spokesperson, Matt Spathas, retired for the evening with a confident smile.

Proposition S succeeds a slightly smaller $1.51 billion bond, Proposition MM, which was passed by 78 percent of voters in 1998. Property owners will continue to pay roughly $66 per $100,000 worth of property until 2029, the same rate they currently pay for MM, and pay a slightly lower tax until 2044.

Its victory is not surprising: School bonds are historically more likely to win than fail, and grew nearly failsafe after 2000, when voters allowed school districts to lower the voting threshold from two-thirds to 55 percent in exchange for more accountability and transparency in their project lists.

Proposition S was also bolstered by endorsements from the teachers union, the San Diego County Taxpayers Association, and Mayor Jerry Sanders, who pointed to the disrepair of existing schools and invoked the technological needs of a new millennium, and television ads that panned over cracked walls and dingy trailers. Bond backers also promised not to raise taxes — a major selling point in an economic downturn — by hitching the new bond to the expiring Proposition MM and extending the taxes that property owners are currently paying for that measure.

“When people realized it didn’t raise their taxes, that was a big, big factor,” Grier said.

But its victory was not as assured earlier in the year. Hiccups in crafting the bond measure led school board members to twice declare it imperfect and incomplete before revisions won their approval. A hostile teachers union was reluctant to throw its energies behind the bond, burned by layoffs and busy trying to unseat a school board member. And staffers at the Taxpayers Association initially panned the bond for failing to prioritize the most needed projects and had earlier fretted about delayed repairs.

Yet one by one, those worries faded. The Taxpayers Association was won over by a deluge of information that answered its questions; the teachers union ultimately gave its nod to the bond. Board members united and threw their support to the measure.

And a campaign that once threatened to be stormy proved quieter than expected. Unlike its predecessor, Proposition MM, it was announced with little fanfare because of the sobering hits recently dealt to school budgets and voters’ wallets, and appeared to be winning at a lower percentage than the blockbuster MM. But neither did it face a robust opposition. Foes of the measure reaped no funding and their campaign was confined to media appearances and editorials, arguing that extending taxes would unfairly burden future generations, that adding air conditioning to schools would hike energy bills, and that the previous bond was mismanaged. Its key opponent, real estate broker Pat Flannery, leapt on flubs such as a superintendent’s meeting where some principals felt pressured to help tout the bond.

But proponents spent little time fending off those accusations and concerns. Instead they focused on getting voters to seek out the bond measure, the very last item on a lengthy ballot.

“We knew if they knew about it, they would vote yes,” Barnett 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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