An Opinion Piece by Jerrold Jensen
The Visalia Unified Board of Trustees has unanimously agreed to not submit plans for a new high school to the State Department of Education. It had to be a tough decision and they deserve positive recognition for cleaning up the mess left behind by the previous administration.
Measure A never provided adequate funding to build the high school that former Superintendent Oto, and other bond supporters, discussed during their 2018 campaign. Polling – not need – determined the size of that bond.
Their polling consultant found that over 55% of the public was willing to pay up to about $35 per $100,000 assessed value. Public support plummeted for any higher tax rate. Using traditional 30 year amortization, that would have limited the future bond to about $65 million – not enough for a new high school.
But Dr. Oto soon announced a $105 million bond that met the public’s “acceptable” tax rate – after VUSD’s financial advisor developed a legally clever bond payoff plan. However, it will cost an extra $22 million in interest compared to a traditional 30 year amortization.
The public was told this $105 million bond would provide $75 million in local funds that would be matched by $75 million from the state to build a new high school. But school finance professionals immediately knew the state would never provide that much money. Only local – not state – funds can be used to build swimming pools, sports stadiums and performance theaters. As expected, recent news reports revealed the state’s maximum contribution would only be $33 to $44 million.
The Measure A campaign was nearly exclusively supported by donations from the construction industry who would reap the financial benefit from millions in bond spending. Furthermore, a clear majority of the district’s “Facilities Committee” are people in the construction business. They do not offer neutral advice to VUSD leaders. (Full disclosure – I would have donated too if I was in the construction business.)
In November, 2017, Assistant Superintendent Robert Groeber told the “Facilities Committee” that VUSD’s objective was to have 5 high schools with 1,600 students each – a total of 8,000 kids. Both he and former Superintendent Oto publicly confirmed that number on several occasions in 2018.
Between 1998 and 2008, births in Visalia’s zip codes soared from 1,772 to 2,442. Ten years later, in 2018, only 2,056 babies were born. Our subsequent high school enrollment is following that same trend line.
On April 14th the board unanimously asked the Superintendent to study school boundary lines to prepare for 4 modernized high schools with 2,000 students in each. In 2017/18 Redwood High School had 2,266 students while Mt. Whitney, just a few blocks away, had just 1,595 – a difference of 671 kids.
The financial impact of the Corona Virus crisis, plus recent defeat of the California $15 billion school construction/modernization bond, means the state cannot provide any funding for a new high school. Thank goodness this school board has the guts to now begin some truly realistic and affordable planning.