Visalia Unified backs out of plan to build fifth high school

School board votes to end effort to build a new high school, shifts Measure A money to district-wide modernization projects

By Kaitlin Washburn 

VISALIA – After years of discussion and deliberation surrounding a potential fifth high school, Visalia Unified School District will not build a new campus. 

At an April 14 meeting, Visalia Unified school board members unanimously decided to postpone selecting a design for the future campus, citing concerns about economic uncertainty and a greater need to redraw the district’s boundaries to balance the student populations at the four existing high schools. 

The board was to vote on one of four potential designs for the new school last week, but opted to not take up the item. 

“I won’t be voting on any of these options. We need to stop the progression on this high school at this time for several reasons,” Board member Walta Gamoian said. “I would really like staff to look into doing a boundary study and look into how we can jazz up the other high schools to accommodate 2,000 students.” 

Talks of a new school began in 2017 when Visalia Unified started developing plans for a new campus on the northwest side of Visalia, next to Ridgeview Middle School. To pay for the school, 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 $190 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 California’s March 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 would not receive any state money for the construction of the proposed fifth campus.

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 the upgraded science labs for middle and high schools is slated to begin this summer.

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

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

But district staff presented three new options at a March board meeting. One design, which was 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 complexes, 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, the district expected $44.6 million, which left an additional $30.4 million for the district to cover. 

“I think we are at a time of economic uncertainty,” Gamoian said. “I don’t know at this time where we are going to get the additional $30 million.”

Jerrold Jensen, a local resident and data analyst, commended the district for halting progression on the new school. 

“It had to be a tough decision and they deserve positive recognition for cleaning up the mess left behind by the previous administration,” Jensen said. “Thank goodness this school board has the guts to now begin some truly realistic and affordable planning.”

Jensen said the chances of getting the school was never a sure thing, even back when the district introduced the bond in 2018. 

“But school finance professionals immediately knew the state would never provide that much money,” Jensen said. “Only local—not state—funds can be used to build swimming pools, sports stadiums and performance theaters. As expected, recent news reports revealed the state’s maximum contribution would only be $33 to $44 million.” 

John Crabtree, the president of the school board, said that considering the economic uncertainty brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, the chances of a statewide school bond are not as likely in the near future.   

“There won’t be any matching funds from the state on this. To suggest that we would even allow ourselves to spend an additional $30 million on a high school at this time would be crazy,” Crabtree said. “Passing a bond in this town again to cover those additional funds is probably absolutely impossible, and most likely without state bonds.”

Board members also discussed the need for the district to redraw its boundary lines to address the student population disparities among the four high schools. 

“Now is not the time, we are in the middle of a pandemic,” board member Juan Guerrero said. “We should be going back and looking at the boundaries. There is an inequity between a whole bunch of students at Redwood and El Diamante and then Mt. Whitney having only 1,600 students.” 

Currently, Redwood High School has the largest enrollment of all VUSD high schools, currently sitting at 2,365. Mount Whitney, which has the smallest enrollment, has 1,653. El Diamante has the second largest student body at 2,059 and Golden West has 1,823. 

Joy Naylor, another VUSD board member, also said the district should reevaluate the perimeters that determine which school a student attends based on their home address. 

“We need to do a boundary study. Mt. Whitney is still sitting at 1,600 because boundaries are not fair,” Naylor said. “To pass the building of a new high school at this particular time during this economic uncertainty would be devastating. We need to get our schools to where they have even enrollment.”

When drafting a school bond, a district puts together a project list that could be funded by the bond if it passes. But that doesn’t mean the district is promising to complete all the projects listed on the bond, which means Visalia Unified is not legally obligated to construct the fifth high school. What the district can’t do is a bait and switch, meaning a new project can’t be added to the list once the bond has been voted on. 

Guerrero said he’d like for the district to focus on the modernization efforts, which are on Measure A’s project list. 

“We are in a totally different situation than when we started this process,” board member Dr. Lucia Vazquez said. “I think we’ve done the best we can. I just don’t feel like building this high school at this time is a good idea.”

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