The Visalia Unified School District (VUSD) Board of Trustees has halted plans to build a fifth high school in the wake of the failure of Prop. 13 on the March ballot.
“The board has decided that we are not moving ahead with the high school at this time and that we need to do more focus on modernization of the rest of the district,” said Board President John Crabtree.
Instead, the VUSD plans to redraw attendance boundaries for its four existing schools to more evenly spread the student population. Currently, El Diamante and Redwood High Schools carry a disproportionately large percentage of students.
Failure of Prop. 13
Leading a list of causes behind the decision to end the project was the lack of funding from the state. In March, California voters rejected Prop. 13, which would have allowed the sale of $15 billion in bonds to fund construction and modernization of the state’s aging campuses. The VUSD was counting on that money for the fifth high school, and without it the project appears dead.
Yet that isn’t the only reason VUSD trustees shied away from beginning a major building effort. The uncertain economic future created by reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic is also to blame.
“There really aren’t going to be any matching funds from the state based on the way this economy is going,” Crabtree said. “There are going to be a lot of things that are going to change that we can’t possibly imagine. To suggest that we would even allow ourselves to spend another $30 million on a high school at this time would just be crazy to me.”
Area 1 Trustee Walta Gamoian echoed Crabtree’s sentiments.
“I think we’re in a time of economic uncertainty, we still have an outstanding debt with that COP (certificates of participation) with only $14 million of the $60 million that’s been paid,” she said. “I don’t know where we’re going to get an additional $30 million.”
If the VUSD decided to move ahead–spending just $30 million beyond the $75 million available from the passage of Measure A–it would have gotten off cheaply. The cost overruns could be more than twice that amount, according to Area 2 Trustee Juan Guerrero.
“We’ve been asked to spend $30 to $70 million. It went over budget,” he said. “Right now is not the time. There’s currently a pandemic going on right now.”
Ironically, at the meeting where trustees agreed to shelve plans for a fifth high school, they and the VUSD staff had intended to review four possible layouts of the new campus.
“It doesn’t matter if you give us four recommendations, the bottom line is the minimum’s $30 million,” Guerrero said. “We don’t have that type of money. It’s not a good deal, and I’m not in favor of it anymore.”
“We can’t spend money we don’t have,” said Area 7 Trustee William Fulmer.
While the district could turn to local voters, asking them to approve an additional bond to make up for the missing state money, Crabtree doesn’t think they’d be likely to approve it.
“Passing a bond in this town again could take care of those additional funds (but) are probably absolutely impossible,” he said. “Same thing with state bonds, and it’s all based on what’s happening right now financially.”
Bringing Balance to the VUSD
With construction plans halted, Gamoian wants to “look into what we can do to jazz up our four high schools so that they can accommodate 2,000 students each.”
Theoretically, those schools should already be able to house VUSD’s high school population. During the 2017-18 school year, Mt. Whitney housed just under 1,600 students. Golden West had nearly 1,750 students, El Diamante served 2,000 students and Redwood High carried the bulk of the load with almost 2,300 students.
“There’s just an inequity there between a whole bunch of students at Redwood and El Diamante, and then Mt. Whitney having 1,600 students,” Guerrero said.
The solution the district will pursue is a resetting of the attendance areas for each school to even out the population. That means some students will have to transfer.
“I think we need to go back and look at our boundaries and make some adjustments,” Guerrero said. “I know it’s a hard thing to say, and I know it’s going to be hard for the community, but we need to correct those boundaries”
The district is already poised to begin those corrections.
“We’ve already engaged the demographer to start the study so that we know exactly where our students are,” said Robert Groeber, assistant superintendent for administrative services. “We’ll bring that information to (the trustees), which will be the start of the process for us to establish new boundaries for the four existing high schools. We’ve already got it on order.”
The district may also be able to smooth out the student population distribution with modern education methods being employed now during the COVID-19 outbreak.
“I think teaching is going to change. We’re showing it right now,” Crabtree said. “With technology, it’s going to start expanding, so maybe the need for physical buildings will not be as great.”
Updates and Repairs Needed
Shuffling students won’t be enough to make up for not building a new high school campus. Many of the VUSD’s facilities must be brought up to current standards.
“Yes, we need a new high school, but there’s a greater need for modernization,” said Area 5 Trustee Niessen Foster. “It’s a changed situation, and we need to modernize and have a boundary study.”
However, none of the campuses is in top condition, many of them having missed out when modernization projects were conducted using Measure E funds, approved by voters in 2012.
“I have visited most of the schools in this district, especially the middle schools, and they have been passed over several times in past bonds,” Foster said.
The money to make modernizing upgrades and repairs is there. Of the Measure A funds, $30 million are earmarked for modernization, with another $75 million intended for construction of the fifth high school. Some or all of the $75 million could be used for other items on the project list voters approved along with Measure A.
Liabilities for Redirecting Measure A?
Despite having a new plan in hand, Board President Crabtree expressed his concern that redirecting Measure A funds could land the trustees in hot water.
“If we don’t move forward with the high school, are there liabilities, because we sold this to the public as we’re going to build them a high school?” Crabtree said. “Half that money was supposed to be towards a high school, even though the costs have gone up considerably and the amount of money that the state was going to reimburse for the high school has changed significantly as well.”
Area 6 Trustee Dr. Lucia Vazquez believes the district left itself sufficient wiggle room when it wrote the text of Measure A to allow redirecting funds.
“From my understanding of what we said is we don’t have to build that, because things have changed legally,” she said. “We just said, ‘This is what we want to do with this money.’ As long as we’re OK with that, I really don’t think at this time we’re in a position to build a high school.”
Daniel Maruccia, the VUSD’s public finance attorney, agreed with that assessment.
“A project list in this context is not a to-do list. It does not mean that the promise that you made to the voters is that we’re going to do each of these things on the list,” he said. “It is still a promise, but it’s a promise that you’re not going to spend money on anything that isn’t on the list.”
Maruccia believes Measure A’s wording allows for the suspension of construction of a fifth high school and modernization of other campuses.
“I will tell you that your project list is fairly extensive and broad and allows the kind of flexibility that I would want you to have and what I would be putting in there if I was drafting it as bond counsel,” he said.