Lack of state funding for school construction will not stop the Visalia Unified School District’s (VUSD) plan to construct a fifth high school, says Superintendent Dr. Tamara Ravalin.
VUSD’s trustees met for a study session on March 17 to discuss how to proceed in the wake of the failure of Prop 13, a $15 billion dollar bond measure.
“We’re still in the design development stage,” Ravalin said. “We’re looking at additional options going forward.”
No Money, Big Plans
In 2018, voters living in the VUSD approved Measure A, authorizing the sale of $105.3 million in bonds to finance modernization of middle and high school science labs, enhance security at VUSD campuses and to pay for construction of a fifth high school. Those plans have now been, at least temporarily, stymied by the failure of Prop 13.
“We couldn’t move forward with construction without a bond from the state,” Ravalin said.
Despite the setback, the district continues planning with the hope voters will approve bonds for construction funding in an upcoming election. While they wait, VUSD trustees and staff have been busy defining the scope of the project.
“We’ve been focusing on working with the architects and the stakeholder groups,” Ravalin said.
Primary among the stakeholders are the teachers who will staff the new school. Teachers in various areas, such as agriculture, music, physical education and science, will have very different needs, and the new high school must be designed with them in mind.
“Building a high school is sort of like building a little city,” Ravalin said. “We’ve been working at getting that information on what would be best. Also, our teams are going out and looking at high schools built recently in the Valley.”
Playing the Waiting Game
Even without Prop 13 money, the VUSD may be able to stick to its original timeline. Of course, that likelihood is dependent on whether voters are interested in investing in school construction.
“We didn’t plan on it (the fifth high school) opening until fall of 2024,” Ravalin said. “That’s still possible, but that depends on if a state bond is passed in November. If that gets pushed out, then our timeline gets pushed out as well.”
With the uncertainty of funding from the state, the VUSD must still have its construction plans ready to ensure the district doesn’t get passed over when and if the money is distributed.
“We still need to get in line,” Ravalin said. “If we get in line, we have a better chance when funds become available, which won’t be soon.”
That still won’t guarantee VUSD’s plans will be funded, yet it’s critical the district is prepared.
“If you wait and don’t get in line, you have less chance of getting money,” Ravalin said. “Those in line get their money first, and when it’s gone it’s gone.”
Choices Limited by Uncertainty
At its study session, the VUSD trustees were to weigh options and review costs. Those building options and construction costs are based on surveys of high schools currently being built in the area.
The complexity of that task is made far greater by not knowing what funding the state will provide or when it will provide it, leaving the VUSD trustees in a hard place.
“It’s difficult for them to make a decision when they don’t know what a state bond will look like,” Ravalin said. “How much we get from the state would depend on how much the (possible) state bond allows. Now, we’ll have to wait and see what a new state bond would afford us.”
Yet, the funding approved by voters locally through the passage of Measure A will not all have to sit idle. Of the Measure A funding, $30 million is intended for modernizing science classrooms and adding security measures, work which began with the earlier passage of Measure E. While bond sales approved by Measure A have yet to be sold, Ravalin said, those projects are still in the future.
“We haven’t started any of that work yet,” she said.
This week’s study session will give planners direction, allowing them to provide initial ideas that can then be presented to trustees.
“We’ll take information to an upcoming board meeting to vote on one of the conceptual designs,” Ravalin said. “Then the architects can go forth and start the plans.”
When plans are complete, they’ll be submitted to the state for its approval. State approval of the project will give the VUSD a spot in line for financing. Once its plan is approved, the district will have four years to begin construction. Even in that eventuality, finalizing a plan now will save the district time and money.
“We would have to modify the plans because building codes would have changed,” Ravalin said. “We wouldn’t have to put as much work into them (the new plans), but they (the original plans) would have to be withdrawn.”
Plans approved now may also have to be altered depending on how much money the state can provide, a route the VUSD has traveled before.
“Even if we submit plans and a bond gets approved, and we find out there’s not enough money for what the board approved, we’ll have to alter our plans,” Ravalin said. “That’s what happened with El Diamante and Golden West (high schools).”
And the VUSD is prepared for that scenario as well.
“We have options,” Ravalin said. “The layout’s not that different. It really depends on the cost. This is a guess: we’d have a high school, but no theater or stadium. We’d add them later.”