On June 12, the Measure A Bond Oversight Committee met to discuss its responsibilities and to plan its next steps. Visalia Unified School District (VUSD) held the initial training to educate the committee on its duties and the powers granted to it by law.
The informational study session included board members, the district’s chief financial officer, and the director of facilities. The committee was educated on Measure A and instructed on strategies other successful oversight committees have used.
A representative from the California League of Bond Oversight Committees (CaLBOC) conducted the presentation and directed the Measure A Committee on its next steps.
Measure A was passed in the 2018 General Election and it will allow the district to sell bonds and tax property-owning Visalians. VUSD started 2019 with an open application for the measure’s legally required oversight committee and selected its members.
The Measure A Committee has fourteen members. The Strict Accountability Act declares that a citizens’ committee must have a minimum of seven members. One should be a member of a senior citizen’s organization, another will be a member of a bona fide taxpayer’s organization, another will represent the business community, and there must be a parent of a student and a parent involved in a PTA or school site council.
The representative from CaLBOC told the committee that the number one barrier for success is participation. Some members of the committee were absent or late, but the inaugural turnout saw most committee members present.
The goal of the oversight committee said the representative was to improve the way the district manages its priorities and funds.
These citizens will spend the next few years monitoring expenses and supervising the construction of Visalia’s fifth high school and the modification of old campuses. On the 12th, however, the committee decided on the 2019-2020 year’s plan.
Bond Oversight Responsibilities
Most of what was discussed at the meeting deals with Section 1(b)(3) of Article XIII A of the California Constitution and the Strict Accountability in Local School Construction Bonds Act of 2000.
Article XIII A has provisions banning the use of bond money to increase salaries or to operate integral parts of school sites. The article also calls for an annual performance and financial audit of the committee’s efforts to manage the implementation of bond money.
In the official resolution ordering an election for the bond, Exhibit A details an exact list of possible modernization and safety upgrades to be included.
Pursuant to the Strict Accountability Act, the oversight committee may review the performance and financial audits. The committee may also review any plans the district has and may require the district to implement cost-saving initiatives.
The bond oversight committee will inspect school sites and some members implied that future meetings of the committee could be held at school sites awaiting inspection.
What is Measure A?
In late June 2018, the VUSD School Board adopted a general obligation bond for the November 2018 General Election. It has authorized $105.3 million for the construction of a new high school with facilities for arts, sports, and science as well as safety and modernization upgrades for eligible schools.
Assistant Superintendent of Administrative Services Robert Groeber outlined the goal of the upgrades.
“Basically, it’s recreating a new school with the same learning environment,” said Groeber. The District has found 18 schools eligible for improvements. Measure E, passed in 2012, created a single point of entry for all VUSD schools. When classes are in session, visitors must pass through the office and demonstrate their purpose for visiting.
“We have to ask what’s the next step? What’s the next thing we can do to protect our staff and students,” said Groeber about the safety upgrades. He mentioned the possible installment of cameras pointed at the parking lot and other areas of congregation.
Groeber estimated that these renovations will take place when schools are closed for breaks to minimize disruptions as much as possible.
The new northwest Visalia high school is projected to siphon 1800 students from other high schools around the district. It’s going to be built near Ridgeview Middle School and will ease stress on other overcrowded schools in the area.
According to the Visalia Times Delta (VTD), at VUSD’s June 25 meeting the board agreed to hire Visalia-based Mangini Associates Inc. to begin drawing up plans for the new high school.
Completing the design is projected to take one year and includes incorporating student and community feedback, a requirement under Measure A. The state approval and drafting process will likely take an additional year.
It would then take at least two more years to actually build the school provided state-matched funds are available at the time. That would put the project right up against the district’s August 2023 commitment to open according to the VTD.
Warnings were given during the VUSD June 25 meeting not to make the same mistakes made during the construction of El Diamante.
The VTD quoted Rick Hamilton, principal of Mr. Whitney High School saying, “Having been the administrator in charge of facilities for El D when it opened, my recommendation is don’t build that school ever again,” he said. “My school is nearly 60 years old, and it’s in much better condition than El D ever was.” Hamilton pointed to the school’s lack of storage, small classrooms and shoddy construction, requiring chiller replacement at a cost of more than $1 million dollars.
Administrators said El D’s construction was significantly compromised by “value engineering” — essentially, the district ran out of money and had to cut costs.
Construction of the new high school is expected to end in time for students to attend in August of 2023, says Groeber. Ultimately though, the construction will be observed by the bond oversight committee and if they are dissatisfied with the proposed expenditures, construction could be delayed.
Bond History in Visalia
In recent memory, VUSD has voted on three bonds. Measure G in 1999 was passed with a two-thirds vote and brought in $42.5 million for the district. It was refinanced in 2010 to save taxpayers about $600 thousand according to a page on the VUSD website. All bonds have been issued and were paid back in fiscal year 2015-16.
Measure E was approved in November of 2012 and authorized $60.1 million to be spent. As with Measure A, the state promised to back funds.
When committee members asked about the state funds, the district couldn’t provide hard numbers on the state backing, but VUSD Chief Financial Officer Nathan Hernandez said the state had only now started doling out money. The next chance to refinance is in 2023.
Measure A has yet to issue bonds, but they are anticipated to be released in early 2020.
“Our taxpayers have to pay back on it from the time it was issued until it’s paid off,” said Lori Raineri, a representative for CaLBOC. She continued to explain how it was beneficial to have a developed work plan before issuing bonds, so taxpayers save money.
“The district did things better because we existed,” said Raineri. To her, that should be the goal of the committee.
The bond oversight committee’s next meeting is set to take place Wednesday September 18, at 6pm. It will be held at the VUSD boardroom.
All the information discussed at the June 12 meeting can be found at https://www.vusd.org/Page/17053 along with a full list of the members and community affiliations.