Let’s cut to the chase: Many of the projects San Diego Unified has spent bond money on in the last couple years haven’t been quite what taxpayers expected.

All told, money from Propositions S and Z will come out to about $5 billion. That pretty penny was billed as money for school repairs, though some of the “repairs” that have shown up on campuses weren’t given top billing — or much billing at all — in the bond language.

We’ve been digging into how the district’s spent that bond money so far, with an eye to whether those decisions match up with what voters OK’d. For a visual tour, take a look at these photos of the good, the bad and the ugly of what that spending has produced so far.

Mario Koran and Ashly McGlone have made some pretty stunning revelations about how this money is being spent (or not spent). These of their biggest findings.

All That Asbestos? No Big Deal.

Here’s a juxtoposition for you: San Diego High’s science building features a state-of-the-art lab for students across the hall from an asbestos-ridden classroom that’s technically still operational.

That tale of two classrooms is especially jarring considering the district’s heavy sell back in 2008 and 2012 that Prop. S and Z money was urgently needed to protect students and teachers from “hazardous asbestos and mold.”

Voters approved both measures with that language included, but these days, removing asbestos has fallen way down on the list of priorities in retrofitting San Diego schools.

For the most part, when asbestos in floor tiles is addressed, it’s covered up with carpet. Lead paint in school buildings is also hidden, usually covering internal supports; whatever’s exposed has been painted over. No one’s actually asked the district to keep track of how much of its Prop. S and Z funds has been spent on removing hazardous materials, and the district doesn’t have a good idea how much of it has been removed.

Lee Dulgeroff, the district’s chief facilities officer, downplayed the need to keep track of the exact kind of work taxpayers approved with the bond measures:

The district, potentially, could tell which schools had asbestos and lead paint removed. But doing so would be an onerous task, and still might not provide an accurate picture of all the places hazardous materials were removed, Dulgeroff said.

“Honestly, I think it would be a waste of resources,” he said. “It would be like counting the hairs on your head.” … To Dulgeroff, focusing solely on hazardous materials is missing the forest for the trees: Removing hazardous materials is only a tiny slice of the projects that are successfully accomplished.

“If anyone would question whether there was work being done, I invite them to come along on a tour,” Dulgeroff said.

Fancy Stadiums Take Top Billing

The district has outlined its plans for Props. S and Z money as such: “classroom technology, safety and security upgrades, Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) upgrades, new/renovated facilities for College, Career and Technical Education, temporary classrooms replaced by permanent classrooms, air conditioning, ADA improvements to athletic facilities, turf fields, and other capital improvements at traditional and charter schools throughout the district.”

But there’s a disconnect in execution so far. The district has prioritized fancy athletic facilities, which it considers classrooms, over repairs in actual classrooms. Check out this photo from a classroom at Hoover High, sent over by the school’s head custodian.:

Meanwhile, the district’s dropped about $15.1 million on a new turf field for Hoover and improvements to other athletic facilities:

The school will have to wait for its “whole site modernization,” a term for projects that bring schools up to code, modernize classrooms, and repair major items all at once. But that won’t happen until 2017, at the earliest.

Leading up to whole site modernizations, district staff work with school leaders to create a plan for what their schools need most. [Hoover High principal Joe] Austin said the plan at Hoover is shovel-ready. But Hoover leaders needed to tweak their plan recently, based on what’s most needed and cost-efficient. And Austin said those revisions could push the school’s modernization back even further, to 2019.

By that measure, it will take the district 10 years to fix a crack.

The district wants to build a new stadium for every school – a $107 million price tag in total.

• Taxpayers have taken notice of some of the sports-centric improvements. Indeed, some are feeling a little blinded by them.

In several neighborhoods, residents are pushing back against the bright stadium lights disrupting their evening routines.

A lawsuit filed by Taxpayers for Accountable School Bond Spending has bounced between courts since about 2011. In it, the group argued stadium lights were not adequately disclosed to voters who approved Prop. S, and that the district violated state environmental laws by not sufficiently studying the impact of new stadium lights at Hoover on parking and traffic.

The neighborhoods near Point Loma, Crawford and Clairemont high schools have all complained about new stadium lights. FA court ruled the district spent the bond money on lights improperly, because the lights weren’t explicitly disclosed to voters, but San Diego Unified is still waiting to hear whether it’ll have to repay bond money it used on stadium lights.

… Then Tech, Large and Small

San Diego Unified isn’t deaf to taxpayer concerns.

In fact, it reacted directly to outside criticism over how it was paying for an initiative to put an iPad in the hands of every student. Before, the district was using long-term bonds to fund the devices, which, let’s be honest, will probably be obsolete in a handful of years:

Devices that usually cost $400 — financed over as many as 40 years with interest — ballooned to a whopping $4,000 per device when warranties and accessories were factored in.

“Wait, so we’ll be paying for these iPads when we’re like 55?” said a mock text message that appeared as part of campaign message against a 2012 school bond. The San Diego County Taxpayers Association called the iPad price tag “obscene” when arguing against the same bond effort.

So the district shifted to short-term bonds. According to district figures, San Diego Unified’s bought about 87,000 devices using $43 million in bonds to be repaid in two years or less. “It’s kind of like you and I would do,” Dulgeroff, the chief facilities officer, told McGlone. “We wouldn’t take out a home equity line of credit to buy groceries.”

… Then Swimming Pools

Stadiums aren’t San Diego Unified’s only aspirations for top-notch facilities where its students can get their sweat on. Take the district’s Pools for Schools initiative, which intends to dig out 10 or more pools on or near school campuses, to the tune of $20 million.

San Diego Unified plans to use money from Prop. Z to build the pools, while the YMCA would maintain and operate them in a joint-use partnership. This would provide students, YMCA members and paying outside parties space for competitive swimming, water polo, P.E. classes and recreational use.

But first, to use Prop. Z dollars, the district will have to prove the pools are necessary.

The taxpayer group up in arms over stadium lights has already promised it’ll sue over the pools once any bond money is spent on them.

“Why the push for these controversial projects? If there was such a need for them, why weren’t they front and center on the bond measure?” Ron Anderson, president of the taxpayers group, told McGlone. “Nobody is against kids learning how to swim. If there is an intent to build pools, then float a bond and put it squarely in there, stating that the money will be used to build aquatic centers.”

… Then ‘Living Labs’ and Other Off-Campus Projects

Venues for shows of athleticism aren’t the only priority. The district has also dreamed up plans for a “Living Lab” in City Heights that sounds pretty rad: an 11,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art facility with a 35,000-square-foot outdoor science lab that’ll feature terrariums and a kelp cart (!).

San Diego Unified has already pledged about $8 million for the main structure, but here’s the thing: It won’t be located at a school, and it’s going to serve as the headquarters for the nonprofit Ocean Discovery Institute, meaning it’ll be open to the public during non-school hours and the district won’t own the land.

The district says it’s on solid legal footing, but whether the public completely understood that Prop. Z would be funding off-campus facilities with a bond billed as a classroom repair measure is unclear.

… and Portable Classrooms (Which They Ditched Once Before)

Four years ago, school officials decided to get rid of a dozen portable classrooms at San Diego High School to make room for two-story buildings that would better address overcrowding on the campus. But now the district is dipping into Prop. S funds – $1.47 million deep – to buy 10 new portable buildings for the very same campus.

A district spokeswoman said ditching the portable classrooms was still a solid decision:

Even though they’re designed to be mobile, [spokeswoman Cynthia Reed-Porter] said the old portables wouldn’t have fared well in a move because they would have needed upgrades to comply with state laws.

“It would have been more costly to move them, renovate and repair them,” Reed-Porter said … Reed-Porter said the new portables will be better designed to sustain a move and will be sent to other schools later on.

Catherine Green

Catherine Green was formerly the deputy editor at Voice of San Diego. She handled daily operations while helping to plan new long-term projects.

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