Visalia Unified says district will have to come up with an additional $70 million for new high school as it is currently designed, possibly more depending on state school bond
By Reggie Ellis
VISALIA – Visalia Unified’s $105 million bond measure is about $70 million short on its current plans to build a new high school.
The number was announced by the school district on Jan. 27 as part of a released statement urging community members to attend a Measure A outreach meeting next Wednesday, Feb. 12. Measure A is a $105.3 million school bond that passed with over 60% of voters in November 2018. The project list for the bond included security enhancements at nearly every school site, upgrades to middle and high school science labs, school modernization projects throughout VUSD, but its primary purpose was to fund the construction of a fifth high school.
The original construction cost estimate for the new high school was $150 million and was planned to be paid through a 50-50 matching contribution from the State and Measure A funds. Since the original estimate in 2017, the cost of the new high school has grown to $189.5 million, based on similar projects in surrounding counties, and the estimated match from the State has fallen from $75 million to $44.6 million.
“Although no Measure A bonds have been sold at this time, VUSD is engaged in further exploration of our facilities and financing options,” superintendent Tamara Ravalin said in a released statement. “Our focus on providing the best facilities possible for our students, while being good stewards of the public’s fiscal investment in our community remains strong. We continue to reflect on how best to serve all of our students and make necessary adjustments as we explore our options and seek community input.”
Robert Groeber, assistant superintendent of administrative services for Visalia Unified, said matching funds from the state are predicated on the passage of Proposition 13. Not to be confused with the landmark 1978 property tax law, the Prop. 13 on the March 3 ballot is a $15 billion statewide school bond for K-12 and college facilities funding in California, including $9 billion for preschool and K-12 schools, $4 billion for universities, and $2 billion for community colleges. Of the $9 billion for K-12 schools, only $2.8 billion is earmarked for new school construction. The bond was placed on the ballot after Gov. Gavin Newsom signed Assembly Bill 48 last fall.
And its passage is far from certain. As of Jan. 3, the Public Policy Institute of California reported that only 53% of voters support the statewide school bond, with a margin of error of over 4%. If it passes, VUSD will still be $30 million short of its original estimate and $70 million short of its most recent estimate. Groeber said the community will need to reprioritize the project list district wide and consider paring down the list of projects at the high school campus.
The preliminary design of the new high school would accommodate 1,800 students with career technical education, Next Generation Science, visual and performing arts classrooms and includes a stadium, gymnasium, pool and a performance theater. Groeber said staff is beginning the process of narrowing the bond list to fit the available funds.
“We are going to have recommendations and provide the board with choices but right now that’s putting the cart before the horse,” Groeber said. “The first priority is submitting the design documents to the state so that we are inline for funding when it becomes available, this year or sometime in the future.”
In order to gather public input on the shortfall, VUSD will be holding a Measure A outreach meeting at 6 p.m. on Feb. 12 in the multi-purpose room at Divisadero Middle School, 1200 S. Divisadero St. The meeting will be an opportunity for the community to review Measure A projects, with an emphasis on the high school, and for VUSD to seek additional input from interested stakeholders.
Construction on VUSD’s fifth high school was slated to begin in December 2021 with the opening of school in the fall of 2024. If Prop. 13 fails, Groeber said the district will have to wait until new school construction money becomes available before moving forward with a fifth high school.
“We will have to wait for another statewide school bond to pass,” Groeber said.
Groeber said passing a school bond without a guarantee of state funding may seem backward to the public but that’s been the reality of school funding for the last two decades. Californians last voted on a school facilities bond measure in 2016, which passed with 55 percent of the vote. The bond measure, titled Proposition 51, issued $7 billion for K-12 education facilities and $2 billion for colleges. Proposition 51 was the first education bond to appear on the ballot as an initiative and the first education-related bond measure to appear on the ballot since 2006.
Between 1998 and 2019, voters approved five bond measures for school facilities—Proposition 1A (1998), Proposition 47 (2002), Proposition 55 (2004), Proposition 1D (2006), and Proposition 51 (2016).
“For the last 20 years, we are always spending money and then waiting for reimbursement,” Groeber said. “We have to live by the rules we are bound by at the state level.”
Between 1914 and 2015, 42 education-related bond measures have appeared on the ballot in California, and all of them were legislatively referred.
The reprioritizing of the bond project list will not affect every project. This summer the district will begin implementing increased security measures that were a major selling point of the 2018 school bond. Groeber said the district will install entry cameras and remote locking mechanisms at all single points of entry at every campus. The locking mechanisms allow the district to automatically lockdown every exterior door by shutting down power to the school remotely when unauthorized personnel attempt to access the exterior doors.
Measure A will also earmarked matching funds for modernization projects at 12 elementary schools, three middle schools, two high schools and a charter school totaling $48.7 million. The projects will be done in phases over six years beginning in 2021. Phase 1, slated for the summer of 2021, includes Green Acres and Valley Oak middle schools and Mt. Whitney High School.
To learn more about Measure A and related projects, please join us at our outreach meeting on Feb. 12 at 6 p.m. at Divisadero Middle School multi-purpose room, located at 1200 S. Divisadero St.