Trustees of the Visalia Unified School District are asking voters to approve a $105.3 million bond issue on November 6, with the bulk of the proceeds earmarked for a fifth high school, but some critics say another campus may not be necessary.
Measure A Details
Measure A–approval of which will allow the district to sell general obligation bonds backed by the district’s future property tax income, which is also created by approval of the measure–requires a yes vote of 55% for passage.
If Measure A is OK’d, property owners will pay an additional $36 per $100,000 of their property’s value annually, according to the VUSD’s estimate.
The district projects the additional tax will be collected for 30 years, through the 2048-49 fiscal year. The total debt repayment amount has been estimated by the Tulare County Council’s Office at $234,345,298, which served as an impartial analyst of the plan.
District-Wide Upgrades Included
Passage of Measure A could also mean a lot more spending power for the district beyond the $105 million bond sales will provide. Should voters approve the bond issue, state matching funds would more than double the amount VUSD can spend upgrading classrooms around the district, says Assistant Superintendent Robert Gröeber.
“With state reimbursement we expect to leverage $225 million in projects,” he said. “We have $50 million for eligibility (to fund upgrades and maintenance) at 15 different schools across the district.”
Additionally, the Measure A funds will be used to upgrade science labs and classrooms at the city’s five middle schools, as well as providing added security measures at each elementary campus, and to pay for needed repairs throughout the district. That, Gröeber says, will ensure all campuses in the district remain on a par.
“All schools across our district should have the same facilities,” he said. “Your zip code shouldn’t matter.”
Some of the district’s claims may be dubious, however, say critics, and the way Measure A is presented to voters on the November 6 ballot doesn’t make it clear how the money will be spent.
Of the $105.3 million the measure will generate, nearly 75% will go for the construction of a new high school campus, yet the text of Measure A as it appears on the ballot doesn’t mention it.
“To be fair, they did say to prevent overcrowding in schools,” said Tracy Redden, a former school site councilmember who has performed volunteer work the district. Redden is also a college mathematics instructor. “That’s $75 million of those dollars.”
Gröeber says the district’s plan for a fifth high school can be found in the official election supplemental reading material.
Constructing new classrooms is mentioned twice in the Tulare County Voter Information Guide and Sample Ballot for the November 6 General Election, which was distributed to voters in early October. The booklet includes 11 pages of information about Measure A in English and Spanish, including the two-page full text of the measure. In that full text is the only official mention of constructing a new high school.
Ghost of Measure E
Redden is also concerned about how the District spent the $60 million in funding it received after the passage of Measure E in 2012. As with Measure A, the VUSD promised upgrades and repairs to many of the district’s campuses, and that the state would fatten the construction funds.
Redden says the district has received only part of the state money Measure E was supposed to bring to the VUSD, and because of district priorities, many of the promises made to voters during the Measure E campaign remain unfulfilled.
“They built the new middle school first,” she said. “They’ve only done a handful of (upgrade) projects.”
Many of the schools listed as in need of repairs and upgrades in the literature supporting Measure A were also listed as such in publicity for Measure E.
Declining Student Population
Also at issue is how many high school students the VUSD will have in coming years.
The number of students in the district is about to peak, says Jerry Jensen, a volunteer for the VUSD who has been crunching numbers on demographics for the district for several years and was involved in the effort to fund construction of El Diamante High School. Fairly soon, says Jensen, the population will begin to shrink.
“We’re going to have some growth, but that’s going to peak around 2020 or ’21,” he said. “From that point, going forward it goes flat or starts to decline.”
A study commissioned by the district, Jensen says, shows the VUSD already has enough high-school classrooms to house 8,600 students. Currently, there are 7,640 high-school students in the VUSD. Their distribution, however, is lopsided, with Redwood High School at 100% capacity now, and El Diamante at 95.6%. Mt. Whitney High, which sits less than half a mile from Redwood, is only 81.4% occupied.
Much of the district’s problem could be solved by sending students to other schools.
“We have possibly a need for some additional space,” he added.
Quantity for Quality
The VUSD’s Gröeber says the issue isn’t just about keeping classroom overcrowding at bay. Measure A funding is needed so the district can provide greater options for students and keep them more engaged in their own education.
“Our discussion about the fifth high school has never been about capacity,” Gröeber said. “It’s about us wanting to have equity and balance.”
While the VUSD does have a theoretical capacity to educate 8,600 students at its four high schools, the original capacity of those schools was increased mainly by adding portable classrooms intended to be temporary stopgap measures against overcrowding. Without those portable buildings, the campuses have room for 5,375 students.
The city’s high schools also lack adequate opportunities for its students, Gröeber says, citing recent varsity volleyball tryouts at Redwood High. More than 100 students vied for just 22 spots on the team, he said. Adding another campus to the VUSD will help more students pursue their interests.
“That’s what keeps kids connected to school,” Gröeber said. “Those activities are lost when the campuses get too big.”
Creating an additional campus will also give students greater access to other campus resources that have become overused, such as the libraries and cafeterias, as well as more time with teachers, coaches and counselors.
“We owe all our students the same opportunities,” Gröeber said.