SVUSD seeks approval for $40 million in bonds
Like many cash strapped school districts in the country, Sonoma Valley Unified School District is asking voters to help out on Nov. 2 by approving the right to issue up to $40 million in bonds to pay for modernizing, replacing and/or repairing aging buildings and classrooms, and upgrading technology.
The text of the measure is: “To improve student achievement, college/job preparation and help prevent budget cuts by making neighborhood schools energy efficient with solar panels, energy efficient windows and water conservation improvements, allowing savings to improve classrooms; upgrading technology; and modernizing/equipping classrooms, career/technical education, libraries, and computer/science labs; shall Sonoma Valley Unified School District issue $40,000,000 in bonds, at legal rates, under a no-tax-rate-increase financing plan, with annual audits, citizens’ oversight and no money for administrators’ salaries?”
It will take 55 percent of the vote to approve the measure. According to the impartial analysis of the Sonoma County Counsel, money raised through sale of these bonds has to be used for the stated purposes. The district’s board will have independent audits run every year to ensure compliance, as well as report on the status and progress of any bond-funded projects.
Putting in solar panels and high-efficiency windows is a big priority for the district, along with replacing older heating and air conditioning systems with new, high-efficiency systems.
Other site improvements would include safe pathways, improved parking and bus areas, and better parking and drop off areas.
Bond money would also be used to buy new computers, printers and software.
Backers of the measure say it will provide much needed funds to improve infrastructure, save money on energy, and provide better technology instruction for students who have to compete in a very tough job market.
Luann Carlomango, Superintendent of the district, says installing solar panels could save $1 million next year, by saving $500,000 in PG&E costs and an additional $500,000 rebate. She notes that the bond will extend the current property tax level of $50 per $100,000 assessment, but not raise it.
Supporters also say the bonds will create jobs installing solar panels, repairing buildings and parking lots, and making other capital improvements.
State law prohibits using bond proceeds for school operating expenses, and this is a point of contention for opponents, principally the Sonoma County Taxpayer’s Association.
SCTA president Jack Atkin says that using money saved by higher energy efficiency for general budget purposes would violate that ban, if only indirectly. “If they would use the savings on utility bills to pay off the bonds, there would be no objection,” Atkin said.
The Taxpayer Association’s principal argument against the measure is that the SVUSD does not have a dedicated reserve program to put aside money for future capital expenses, like repairing or replacing buildings.
Atkin added, “You know (a building) doesn’t last forever. You can predict costs. If you want to be sure to have money available to replace things, you should set aside a reserve. We’ve encouraged districts for years to set up reserves for major improvements. Bellevue District passed a resolution to put one in place a couple of years ago and we supported that bond.”
South Santa Rosa’s Bellevue district is one of the only growing school districts in the county.
But Helen Marsh, President of the SVUSD’s Board of Trustees, says that’s not accurate. The district does have a reserve account for deferred maintenance, required by state law, that is used to keep buildings and infrastructure sound.
Installing solar panels and saving money through energy efficiency is a forward looking process that will provide a huge savings going forward as well as take advantage of a large rebate program that has already closed to further applicants, Marsh said.
Improving water conservation is also important today because of the high potential for future water shortages and price increases, Marsh emphasized.
This bond issue will also ramp up the school’s ability to teach technical trades and professions that have been curtailed in past years because of budget restraints.
“By saving money on solar, we will be putting the money back into the classroom,” Marsh said. “We have to have the technology in the classroom. We are behind the times in California because of budget problems. We’re asking local folks to put money in to immediately benefit the kids.”
However, the SCTA argues that long-term debt money should not be used to buy high-tech equipment. “People in the future will be paying for it when it’s in the landfill,” Atkin said.
Marsh noted that the SCTA filed identical arguments opposing all seven school district bond measures. “That’s not an informed analysis of any bond measure,” she said. “If this passes, people will come to Sonoma to see how we did it. It is a model not only for school districts, but government and private interests alike.”
Supporters of the measure who actively endorsed it in the voter’s pamphlet include the Sonoma Valley Chamber of Commerce, the Boys & Girls Club, Sonoma Materials, Benziger Family Winery, Sonoma County Sheriff Bill Cogbill, and hundreds of others. You can learn more about the supporters at the Yes on H website, www.sonomaschoolsyesonh.org. A good overview can be found at smartvoter.org/2010/11/02/ca/sn/meas/H/.
The Sonoma County Taxpayers’ Association website is sonomacountytaxpayers.org.