VUSD sorting out alternative designs for fifth high school

After state funding fell through, the school might look different than originally planned 

By Kaitlin Washburn 

VISALIA – Visalia Unified School District is considering four potential design options for its fifth high school, but the board has yet to decide which plans to go forward with. 

At a March 24 meeting, Visalia Unified School Board members discussed all the options for the new school design, but tabled the vote for Tuesday’s meeting. Once the board votes on a design option, the district will submit them to the state for review. 

Talks of the school began in 2017 when Visalia Unified School District started developing plans for a new campus on the northwest side of Visalia, next to Ridgeview Middle School. At the time, the district estimated it would cost $150 million. 

To cover the cost, VUSD put a $105.3 million school bond, known as Measure A, on the November 2018 ballot, which passed with over 60 percent of the vote. Along with modernization and security projects, the measure would cover $75 million of the new school, and at the time, voters were told the other half would be matched by the state of California. 

But less than two years after Measure A’s passage, the price of the fifth school has increased to $189.9 million, and the state’s expected contribution decreased to $44.6 million and now it’s dropped to zero.

Proposition 13, a $15 billion statewide school construction bond failed during last week’s primary election, only gaining 44 percent of the vote. Visalia Unified hoped to get a chunk of that funding for the new high school.

At this time, the district will not receive any state money for the construction of the proposed fifth campus. VUSD will have another chance at state money if California puts another bond, similar to Prop. 13, on future ballots. 

A portion of the school bond—$30 million—will be spent on school modernization, science labs and campus security projects, which include installing cameras at single points of entry and door locking hardware that is operated remotely from a school’s front office. 

Campus modernizations are currently scheduled to be designed this fall and constructed during summer 2021. Designing of the upgraded science labs for middle and high schools is slated to begin this summer.

The district is in the midst of designing the new high school, and construction is expected to begin during the fall of 2024. However, the design is now subject to change as the price tag design is now subject to change as the price tag on the school increased and expected funds from the state decreased. 

The school board plans to start selling Measure A school bonds on June 24. Before that, during an April 28 meeting, the board will discuss in greater detail the plans for issuing the bonds. Once the bonds are sold, the district has three years to spend the money from the bond sales, said Nathan Hernandez, the district’s chief financial officer. 

The original plan for the new school included a swimming pool, stadium, theater, gymnasium, baseball and softball fields, agriculture and career and technical education complex. The estimated cost for that design is $190 million, with construction costing $168 million. 

Assuming state funding becomes available again in the future, the district estimates the state’s contribution will total $44.6 million, and an extra $69.9 million would be needed to foot the bill. 

Another option is to remove student parking, the swimming pool, the agriculture and career and technical education complex, a building worth of classrooms and the theater. That design brings the price tag down to $103 million, $95 million of which would go toward construction. 

While the cost went down, so did the estimated contribution from the state, decreasing to $33.3 million. But with that and Measure A funding, the district would not need to spend additional money on the construction. 

The next option is everything from the original design but the swimming pool and the theater, which would cost $150 million and require an extra $30.4 million, assuming the state’s contribution remains at $44.6 million. 

The fourth design option, which is the district staff’s recommendation, includes the baseball and softball fields, track and practice field (with infrastructure to build a future stadium), agriculture and career and technical education complex, tennis courts, swimming pools, gym, tennis courts and no theater (with a space for a future one). The total cost would be $150 million, $132 million would be for construction.  

Along with the $75 million from Measure A, just like with the previous options, the district expects $44.6 million, which leaves an additional $30.4 million.

Lucia Vazquez, a board member, commended district staff for cutting costs and focusing on needs rather than wants.

“I really appreciate being listened to, even though it was a hard decision,” Vazquez said. “You did come back and answer our questions on whether you can cut back the floor plan, can you make this affordable and still have something functional. And I think you did all of that.”

Trustee Walta Gamoian said she was still concerned about the steep costs of building the new school and doubted the chances of another statewide school bond passing this year.

“I know we promised the public a high school, but I have some hesitations here,” Gamoian said.

Tamara Ravalin, Visalia Unified superintendent, said the board was only voting on which plans they intend to submit to the state, as it would be a few years before the district would break ground on the fifth school.

“The plans are still good for four years, and it’s highly likely another state bond will pass in that time,” Ravalin said.

Board member Juan Guerrero said he supported the fourth option and recognizes that the fifth school will likely be built in phases.

“It’s important to know that we need to have our plans together to get in line so that we do have a shot at state money, we most likely will have to go in phases,” Guerrero said. “It’s a functional plan that will get us a school.”

While she agrees with the fifth school, Gamoian said she’d like to see the high school populations balanced in the future.

“We have got to take care of boundaries. What we are doing to Redwood High School right now is a crime, having 2400 kids,” Gamoian said. “I want to make sure the second time around when we do this again that every school has balance, especially socio-economically.”

Before voting on which plans to go forward with, board member Joy Naylor said members of the Measure A Bond Oversight Committee should have the opportunity to go over the options and give the board their thoughts on which plans to choose.

Naylor motioned to table the vote for the board’s next meeting and send the trustees’ recommendation to the oversight committee.

Start typing and press Enter to search