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Around this time of year at Voice of San Diego, staff members reflect on the past 12 months and start compiling a list of Voices of the Year.

Making the list isn’t necessarily an honor, but it’s a distinction given to individuals or groups who provoked the most meaningful conversations in San Diego.

We’ll reveal who made the list soon, but one group surfaced in our deliberations that deserves a mention: the residents living near Clairemont High School who objected to so much light raining down on them from the nearby stadium.

If you’re a San Diego Unified parent, or even just live within the district’s boundaries, you’re probably aware the district has access to a good chunk of money – around $5 billion – that it will spend on school repairs, construction, modernization or technology. That money comes from two construction bonds: Prop. S, which voters passed in 2008, and Prop. Z, passed in 2012.

On the surface, Clairemont residents’ complaints are like any NIMBY concerns: Stadiums will bring extra traffic; booming PA systems will mean noise pollution; new field lights will shine in their windows. In short, the neighborhood will change, and change can be annoying.

That’s not to say residents didn’t have legitimate reasons to be upset. The lights illuminate homes even several blocks away from the school, and the sound system reverberates through the neighborhood.

“I don’t even use my backyard at night anymore. It’s so lit up you just squint,” said one nearby resident, Tom Ford.

But what makes the collective voice of Clairemont residents significant has less to do with the substance of their complaints, and more to do with the deeper conversation they sparked about just how the district chooses which bond projects to complete first.

That ties into a question sent in by one of our readers.

Question: How are bond projects prioritized? (I paraphrased the question.) – Gloria Smestad, curious reader

The first thing to understand is that taxpayers are already supposed to know all the projects that will be constructed with bond money.

In 2008, and again in 2012, voters were presented with a huge list of all the important things the money would be spent on. Topping the list, and making matters seem very urgent, were promises to remove hazardous materials from schools, like mold, lead or asbestos.

Both bonds passed. Later, it turned out that some of those public safety concerns were overblown. District officials couldn’t tell us earlier this year which schools they had even removed asbestos from. In some cases, they simply covered asbestos-laden flooring tiles with a new layer of carpet. No big deal.

On its face, the timeline for construction is straightforward. The district sticks to the voter-approved list and checks them off once they’re completed.

But it’s not so simple. While there are a great many projects on the original list, the vague language allows for a good deal of wiggle room. Legally speaking, that might allow the district to embark on projects that end up surprising voters, like the district’s initiative to build pools for schools. Voters didn’t expect pools to rank ahead of leaky ceilings, but there was actually one reference to pools buried in the 100-page voter guide that taxpayers approved.

More recently, school board trustee Richard Barrera announced that Memorial Prep will be rebuilt to the tune of $100 million-plus. That school had been scheduled for a “whole site modernization.” But you’d be forgiven for not understanding that meant a complete reconstruction.

This brings us more directly to the question at hand: How does the district decide which projects go first? In short, the school board sets the priorities. Here’s how I explained it earlier this year:

The school board sets the priorities. A master timeline shows which projects need to be completed. Once a year, board members review reports made by district staff about the condition of district facilities, then decide on which ones will be tackled in the next few years.

The board considers the Facilities Condition Index, which are scores assigned to each school based on the condition of the buildings. The higher the score, the worse shape a school is in. In theory, the district would base its timeline primarily off the index, and tackle schools with highest scores first.

But other factors – like political pressure put on the board and available external funding – can bump projects up the list.

An example of this would be the decision to install air conditioning units in 2,000 of the district’s hottest classrooms. This wasn’t a priority in the original plan.

At first, schools were going to have to wait for their planned whole site modernization projects to have AC in their rooms. But based on political pressure he got from constituents, trustee Kevin Beiser successfully pushed to make this happen sooner.

Grants or matching funds could also jump projects up the list. That’s the reason College, Career and Technical Education projects, like the professional broadcast journalism studio at San Diego High, were prioritized.

That’s the long version. But it doesn’t answer every question.

For example, we know district staff creates a list, and school board members have some discretion to move projects up that list. But just how much discretion – and the context in which this conversation happens between trustees – is a question even Bill Ponder, a member of the bond oversight committee, can’t answer.

By the time school board members take a public vote on the two-year project list, there’s not much discussion about which projects should go first. At least not out in the open.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of wheeling and dealing goes on between board members before the vote,” Ponder said.

If that’s true, it doesn’t necessarily mean there’s anything nefarious happening. But it could certainly include the kind of log-rolling and political deal-making that sounds gross but happens at all levels of politics.

A more practical concern, Ponder said, is that the more the district prioritizes luxury projects like stadiums over unsexy repairs, the greater the chance that a good chunk of projects on the original list won’t get done.

“Unless the district comes out and says to parents, ‘This is what’s not going to get done,’ parents are not going to understand what’s not going to get built,” he said.

Ed Reads of the Week

• School board member wants Muppets book banned (News Herald Media)

This gem comes out of my small hometown in Wisconsin, where school board members know what matters: banning Muppets.

Apparently, one school board member took issue with the fact that kindergarteners had access to “For Every Child a Better World,” by Jim Henson.

According to the story, “The book, she contends, contains images of suffering children living in poverty and violence, including one illustration that shows a child living in a box in the rain.”

This is a great piece of context: “As part of objecting to the Henson book in July, Carney also claimed the curriculum takes away teachers’ autonomy and ‘downplays American exceptionalism’ by focusing too much on global affairs.”

Just to be clear, this is not The Onion.

• The Silicon Valley Suicides (The Atlantic)

Hanna Rosin takes us up to a school in Silicon Valley to visit “an extreme distillation of what parents in the meritocratic elite expect from a school.”

It’s also a place where a disproportionately high number of affluent teenagers are killing themselves. It’s a pattern researchers call “suicide clusters.” One suicide sparks another, then another, then another.

The degree to which that pattern correlates to the stresses kids face in this part of California is a matter of careful research. It’s also an uncomfortable commentary on the suffering kids endure when parents push them toward the upper echelons in everything they do.

Mario Koran

Mario was formerly an investigative reporter for Voice of San Diego. He wrote about schools, children and people on the margins of San Diego.

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