SVUSD seeks bond approval
$120 million for priority maintenance, including Dunbar School
Sonoma Valley Unified School District’s Board unanimously agreed to place a $120 million bond issue on the Nov. 8 general election ballot. The General Obligation bonds will be specifically targeted to physical improvements at the District’s high school, two middle schools, four elementary and two charter schools. Glen Ellen’s Dunbar Elementary School is included in the SVUSD.
The SVUSD request is for a special type of bond that requires a 55 percent approval under California law. Keep in mind that Kenwood School District is separate and is currently undergoing a vote-by-mail parcel tax request that will require two-thirds majority for approval.
Bringing Dunbar’s classrooms up to modern standards would require upgrading toilets, upgrading classrooms, refurbishing interior and exterior finishes and systems, upgrading lighting, upgrading landscape, improving traffic flow and drop-off areas, upgrading technology, and increasing storage.
Dunbar’s master plan identifies “mandatory improvements,” “green technology,” “necessary improvements” and “desired improvements.” Dunbar’s mandatory improvements include kitchen stove venting, emergency lighting, bringing the campus into compliance with the Americans with Disability Act (ADA), and a thorough seismic safety review of the aging buildings.
Asked what her school needs most, Dunbar Principal Melanie Blake said, “The need for maintenance and repair on plumbing and bathrooms is becoming more urgent. We keep them in good working order, but the sense of urgency has increased.”
“Many of our schools date back to World War II,” Blake said. The original school (now designated Building F) was built sometime before 1939. Two others were built in the 1950s and the rest in the 1960s. There are six portable classrooms that are in varying states of repair.
The $120 million bond issue will not cover all the costs for all the schools by any means, according to SVUSD Superintendent Louann Carlomagno. A 2011 master plan for the district identified $220 million in improvements, but in view of the many tax and bond issues facing voters this year, the Board decided to limit its request to addressing immediate needs.
A 2010 bond issue funded the installation of solar systems throughout the district which has resulted in nearly a half-million dollars a year in energy savings, and bringing new technology to bear, including an improved computing and wireless network throughout the system.
“Our goals with these bonds is to keep our schools safe, warm and dry,” Carlomagno said at the District’s regular Board meeting on Aug. 9 in Sonoma.
Modernizing classrooms also improves the ability to educate students.
“Many studies have shown that students do better in clean, well lighted and modern facilities,” she said. “Many of our students are economically disadvantaged and need access to technology to prepare themselves for life.”
Since 2000, continuing financial distress has prompted the State of California to direct local school districts to spend money formerly set aside for building maintenance to pay salaries and other general education costs, Carlomagno pointed out.
But the bill is coming due for delayed maintenance and bonds are the mainstay of school funding.
“This is the way we do building in California,” Board member Dan Gustafson said, referring to school districts throughout the state. “Dunbar and other schools were built as the troops came back from WWII. They started decaying right away.”
“I would love to remind voters that the mechanism that the state provides to schools to fix, repair and upgrade their facilities is a school bond,” Blake said. “Just like any homeowner wants to keep their house in good repair, we want to keep our classrooms clean and safe and welcoming. We want the children to see classes that are inviting, have good air conditioning and lighting, and let them know we value them being here. Bonds are the mechanism we are given to make sure the schools are in the best possible shape for our kids.”
John Isom, of Isom Associates, a consultant to the District, said that bond interest rates are at a 90-year low, providing an excellent return for the District and dropping the payback as low or lower than two times the investment, for a final cost of $240 million to pay off the $120 million sold. When interest rates are higher, the payback is also higher.
“In today’s market, investors are desperately seeking safe investments, and there is nothing safer than school bonds,” Isom said. “There is a very high demand for these types of bonds.”
The $120 million figure is based on a rate of $42.50 per $100,000 of assessed valuation of property in the district. The rates are not based on market value. The obligation is paid off by assessments on property tax rolls.
“You could have borrowed more,” Isom said, “but this request is prudent, modest and based on very good data.”
While most people in the sparse audience supported the bond issue, and several volunteered to work on turning out voter support, one resident of the district asked why the district doesn’t wait until prior bonds are paid off before selling more.
The District still has $46 million in prior bonds to retire, including the 2010 issue for technology and energy projects, and other funds from a 1997 issue. The 2010 bonds will be retired by 2032 and the 1997 bonds will be paid back by 2025. The current bonds are set for a 30-year payback, but they will not all be issued at once. They are generally sold as projects are approved and ready to begin.