Although plans are still in at the earliest stage, Visalia Unified School District (VUSD) Trustees are gearing up to seek voter approval for a $300 million bond to fund construction of a fifth high school.
At least one long-time VUSD volunteer expert, however, isn’t sure it’s needed.
Zero Population Growth
Visalia may need another high school and soon. Or, it may not. It depends on who you ask.
What isn’t in dispute is the lack of growth of Visalia’s high-school aged population. According to Jerry Jensen, a volunteer who has worked on VUSD bond oversight and facilities committees since the early 1990s, the District will experience no growth in the number of high school students beyond the year 2020, at least from within.
“I’m just a numbers guy. I update (VUSD’s) enrollment projections. I’m just a volunteer,” Jensen said. “I ran the numbers again, and it indicates there are going to be 600 new students [entering the city’s high schools by 2020], but nothing after that.”
Jensen, who is now retired, spent 30 years as a sales manager for an international consumer goods company. Crunching numbers on growth was a main staple of his job.
“I spent a lot of time doing consumer demographics,” he said.
VUSD Agrees, Disagrees
“We don’t have any issue with his process or his analysis,” said VUSD Deputy Superintendent Robert Gröeber. “In fact, I think we agree with it.”
But, there’s more to the picture than matriculation of students already enrolled in Visalia’s elementary and junior high schools. Visalia remains a popular place to relocate, and new families coming to the area will bring more high-school aged children with them.
“I think the difference is we still anticipate growth from mobility, people moving into the district,” Gröeber said. “Especially in the northwest, we see people moving in every year.”
Getting those growth numbers wrong could be an expensive mistake. In 2011, College of the Sequoias canceled its summer session after a decline in enrollment. Jensen doesn’t want to see a similar error at the VUSD.
Different Data Sets
The data set Jensen used to reach his zero-growth conclusion came from the California Department of Education Data Quest website.
“You can go to that website and pull up every number I present,” he said. “All of this base information is online and open to the public.”
The VUSD relies on another source for its demographics information, the California Longitudinal Pupil Achievement Data System (CALPERS). Its data set is also available online, and it’s that information, Gröeber says, that shows the city may need another high school.
“We’re in the process of putting those number together now. We do a similar analysis every year,” he said. “We take that data by school and work with it based on old growth. We just got the baseline data. We’re about two weeks away from having that.”
As it stands, with an increase of 600 high school students during the next two years, the city’s high schools will be crowded.
“If they grow by 600 students, they will be hard pressed to handle them,” Jensen said of VUSD’s carrying capacity.
That means even with zero population growth, Visalia high-schoolers are going to be packed in tight if another campus isn’t built to spread out the load. Currently, some 10,000 students attend Visalia’s four high schools. Approximately 300 additional students attend the District’s continuation high school.
Constructing a new campus will cost $130 to $150 million. Land for the school is already owned at the northeast corner of Akers Street and Riggen Avenue, across the street from the recently constructed Ridgeview Middle School. VUSD estimates it needs an additional $159 million for modernization of its other campuses, and intends to include that funding in the possible bond request.
Check the Numbers
Jensen presented his findings to the VUSD at a Facilities Advisory Committee meeting last week. His main concern is whether what he sees is valid.
“I’m going to offer a contrarian opinion, and it’s only one man’s opinion,” he said prior to the meeting. “You need to audit these numbers and tell me if I’m right or wrong.”
While Jensen is a qualified volunteer, the District has a paid consultant doing similar work, and Jensen hopes he will provide a second pair of eyes to look over his work.
“I would hope they would have him look at those numbers to see if I’m right or wrong or somewhere in between,” Jensen said.
Gröeber said VUSD will be performing that due diligence as it feels out the political landscape.
“We’re at the very early stages of testing the public’s support for additional facilities at Visalia Unified,” he said.
The District has commissioned a survey of likely voters, and a poll of 500 of them will be performed this month. Questions for the survey are being written now.
“We’re hopeful we’ll be doing that work by the end of November,” Gröeber said. “This is the first step along the way. We’ll bring the results to the board in January. A lot hinges on this survey.”
With the survey results in hand, VUSD officials will begin setting the scope of their bond request, a process that is scheduled to be complete by April. VUSD Trustees will make their decision on whether to ask for voter support for a bond at a meeting on April 24.
If they decide to move ahead, a resolution calling for an election will be presented to VUSD Trustees for discussion on May 22 and final approval on June 12. If they OK an election, the county must have the documents in hand no later than August 10.
Voters will have their say on paying for a fifth high school during the general election scheduled for Tuesday, November 6.