MODESTO -- School bonds on ballots next month all pledge to fund projects that voters may agree are needed. But within each project list lie options that could balloon into major expenses even new schools with no further need for voter approval.
All but one bond measure in counties adjacent to Stanislaus propose buying computers and other technology destined to be discarded decades before it is paid for. Several would allow ongoing, routine expenses such as upkeep and repairs to be paid by bond proceeds. Others would lower energy bills by investing in high-efficiency equipment or eliminate rent by buying property now leased, easing cash flow but not necessarily saving money overall.
What are 'facility costs'?
The bonds proposed in the Northern San Joaquin Valley and nearby foothills would be paid back with extra property taxes collected from throughout their districts. All are dedicated to facility costs, but in these days of state cuts and delays to school funding, property owners are being asked to greatly expand what that means.
The bonds include sweeping authorization for renovations, improving wheelchair access and raising energy efficiency, categories that could range from new light bulbs to multimillion-dollar upgrades.
Ripon voters are being asked to completely remake two of the district's five kindergarten through eighth-grade schools. Both were built almost entirely of 1980s-era portable classrooms. The particle board shells have dry rot, leaky ceilings and a host of woodpecker nests. Illnesses led to the discovery of black mold in several classrooms, said Ripon Unified board member Kit Oase.
Ripon's is the highest bond amount, $25.2 million, and it's the only district not asking voters to buy new technology. Ripon parent groups raised money to stock both schools with state-of-the-art computer labs. Fiber-optic cables strung up with duct tape connect them to the Internet.
Ripon Unified Superintendent Louise Johnson said the plan is to move students off campus to other schools while the Weston and Colony Oak campuses are being demolished and rebuilt. Budget cuts have raised class sizes and left plenty of empty rooms throughout the district, but it is not eyeing consolidation, she said.
"We're going to need our schools as development begins to come back," Johnson said.
Planning for the future?
That's a sentiment underlying many of the arguments for school bonds.
Ripon's enrollment held steady through the recession. Escalon Unified, however, has lost about 300 students nearly 10 percent since its 2005-06 peak.
One Escalon school has about 116 students, and another 137. Still, landowners will be asked to give broad authority to make utility and security upgrades, redesign parking lots and add permanent classrooms.
Escalon's $19.5 million bond proposes to outfit and equip vocational classrooms, refurbish facilities, buy computers and update technology.
Both San Joaquin bond proposals authorize paying for "deferred maintenance projects and ongoing repairs," categories typically paid by the general fund.
In Sonora, the high school district has lost more than a quarter of its enrollment the past decade, but is hoping voters will approve $23 million to replace deteriorating pipes and leaky roofs, bring firefighting water lines up to code and pay for new technology. The long list of spending possibilities includes money to upgrade, renovate and equip buildings, or buy land and build new facilities.
The Summerville Union High School District east of Sonora wants $8 million to fund a new art classroom and green energy upgrades. The district's enrollment is about the same as it was a decade ago.
Both of the Tuolumne County bonds seek permission to scrap any large-scale renovation to build from scratch if board members deem it a savings in the long run. The bonds could be used to create and equip school fields and athletic facilities for community use.
In Merced County, Delhi Unified is asking $8 million, seeking to build a high school wood shop and a multipurpose gymnasium room for El Capitan Elementary, which serves kindergartners through eighth-graders. Plans include energy savings and technology upgrades.
Delhi's enrollment has dipped only slightly since the recession began.
In the Weaver district, southeast of Merced, a new school tops the $9 million bond wish list. Its three schools now hold 770 to 925 students, having grown steadily for more than a decade.
The lists of proposed projects are not promises. They are limits to contain spending, and have historically included very specific projects to be funded.
Some building projects in these bonds anticipate matching state grants, which California continues to approve with or without the money to pay for them. School operating funds, which valley districts depend on heavily, have been cut roughly 25 percent since the recession began, and what remains arrives in bits and spurts after long delays.
Extra property taxes paid locally, however, arrive twice a year, right on time.
Bee education reporter Nan Austin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2339.
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