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Shortly after the school year started, I was at a meeting of our own Parent Teacher Association in Ocean Beach.
One of the main topics: the blistering September climate was suffocating the old classrooms at my son’s coastal school. Fans were on full time, windows as wide open as they could get and the blessed ocean breeze was nowhere to be found.
They even canceled physical education class some days and watched movies instead. I understood why but it was kind of like replacing your salad lunch with a three-pack of Hostess cupcakes.
And then the news came. With a snap of its collective fingers, the San Diego Unified School District decided that all its schools, including those along the coast, would get air conditioning. It will cost more than $200 million and increase yearly costs by $1.4 million.
When that happened, I suspect Scott Barnett felt a disturbance.
I called Barnett, a former San Diego Unified trustee, recently because I wanted his response to a report from the district that basically said that after four years and more than $1 billion in spending following a tax increase and construction bond, schools facilities were in worse shape than they were before the investments.
Barnett had been the chief champion of the 2012 bond that voters approved, increasing taxes by $60 for every $100,000 of property you own.
Previous construction bonds, Barnett told us in 2012, had not been able to address major repairs and maintenance. Agencies like school districts measure the condition of buildings using the so-called facilities condition index, or FCI. As the district’s report notes, an FCI of 5 percent is considered good; between 6 percent and 10 percent is fair. More than 10 percent is poor.
In 2012, the FCI stood at 18 percent for San Diego Unified schools. Barnett pledged then that Proposition Z would reverse that.
“What Prop. Z is going to do – for the first time in history – it is actually going to eliminate all the deferred maintenance down to about 4 percent from about 18 percent now,” he said.
But the new report showed that index has risen to 22.7 percent. The facilities Barnett swore (for the first time ever!) were going to get the repair they needed were only getting worse. What’s more, the report projects the FCI won’t get down to anywhere close to what Barnett predicted unless the district raises taxes yet again or gets an influx of money from somewhere else.
Barnett was defensive when I contacted him.
But not as defensive as Lee Dulgeroff, the chief facilities planning and construction officer, when KPBS called him for a statement before their interview with our writer Ashly McGlone.
Dulgeroff said we had it all wrong.
“OK, the Voice of San Diego story fundamentally misunderstands what is happening in our schools today. To say there have been no improvements is to say our kids would be better off without all the new computers we purchase with bond funds,” Dulgeroff said.
OK, we didn’t say that. We did not say there were no improvements to schools or that kids would be better off without computers.
That would be mean.
He went on.
“To say our schools are not improving is to say that the kids in 2,000 classrooms would be better off without the air-conditioning we installed,” he said.
Again, we didn’t say that. We did not say kids in 2,000 classrooms would be better off without air-conditioning.
We simply read San Diego Unified’s own report about its construction bonds. Proposition Z was put on the ballot as “The San Diego Neighborhood Schools Classroom Safety and Repair Measure.”
It was sold first and foremost as a way to finally deal with major repair and maintenance needs and safety concerns like asbestos.
But since then, the district has decided that it had more important uses for the money.
And that’s what Barnett pointed to.
“Politicians prefer to spend money on projects the public can see, touch and feel,” he said in a written statement. “Sports facilities, theaters, new classrooms, high-tech iPads, etc as opposed to roofs, boilers, unseen pipes and pluming, etc.”
He said parents are never going to clamor for major repairs, and there’s no political benefit in doing them.
“There are never press conferences or ribbon-cuttings for new roofs or parking-lot repaving,” he wrote.
Barnett even admitted to pushing some of those – “sexy” as he called them – projects when he was on the school board. Things like stadiums for Mission Bay and Kearny High Schools. They were important to school committees.
Apparently reacting to our coverage, the district itself put out a sort-of news story about its bond spending.
“Not only do all K-12 students in district schools have access to 21st century technology via individual computing devices, but 5,477 classrooms have interactive white boards, audio-visual systems and other technology that enhances teaching and learning,” it wrote.
All of this is understandable. I saw directly the desire for air conditioning. Schools do have more technology. The new football stadiums are pretty.
But none of that changes how the bond was sold to voters. Proposition Z was (for the first time in history!) supposed to fund major repairs that would not only save facilities but relieve the district’s existing general fund budget of pressure. That money was supposed to make it easier to pay teachers.
Asbestos was supposedly a major threat that the bond would help clean up.
Turns out those promises and concerns only lasted long enough to pass the tax hike.
In three years, all school classrooms will have air-conditioning units, putting even more of a strain on the general fund budget.
And the buildings holding up those units will be as bad as ever.
Which no doubt means the district will be making the case for another tax increase to finally, once and for all (for the first time in history!) address major repairs and maintenance.