State holds up $200 million school funds

By Reggie Ellis


tulare county – The State’s decision to delay the sale of statewide school bonds approved by voters is holding up just under $200 million for Tulare County school districts to repair and update aging schools as well as build new schools to alleviate overcrowding.

Last month, the Coalition for Adequate School Housing (CASH) sent a letter to legislators notifying them of the Department of Finance’s decision to push back the sale of bonds from Proposition 51, the 2016 state school bond approved by 55.2% of the voters last November. CASH, a co-sponsor of the statewide measure, said the delay is holding up $134 million in new construction funds and $61 million in modernization funding for Tulare County schools.

Dave Walrath, a legislative advocate for CASH, said the Department of Finance normally releases school facility funding within a month of a state school bond’s passage by fronting the money and then backfilling it with the sale of the bonds six months later. This year, the Department of Finance will not be releasing any funding until the first issuance of bonds next spring, nearly a year and a half after Prop. 51 was passed. Walrath said the delay means project applications that have already been submitted by school districts might not be funded until 2020.

“CASH is disappointed that the May Revision continues the Department of Finance’s bond sale schedule that delays voters’ clear desire to assure all kids and teachers have access to safe, quality classrooms as soon as possible,” Walrath stated in a letter to legislators. “Out kids and teachers should not have to wait longer for access to safe, quality classrooms.”

The Department of Finance did not return calls of press time.

The delay means Woodlake Unified School District (WUSD) and Lindsay Unified School District (LUSD) will have to push back modernization projects that were submitted in 2014. WUSD is awaiting $2.2 million in modernization funding for Woodlake High School and $484,000 for Francis J. White Learning Center, the district’s K-2 school. Those schools are also eligible for financial hardship, a designation meaning the district has exceeded its bonding capacity making it eligible for additional funding that would normally be paid for with a local bond measure. Woodlake High School is eligible for $1.4 million in hardship funding while F.J. White is eligible for $322,000.

“It will delay some projects but not all projects,” said WUSD Superintendent Drew Sorenson. “Districts will have to decide if they are going to do one big project and many smaller projects. They can’t all be done.”

LUSD is awaiting between $1.3 million and $1.8 million in modernization funds for four of its six K-8 schools including Lincoln, Jefferson, Washington and Reagan elementary schools.

LUSD did not return calls as of press time.

Another part of the equation is the Governor’s unwillingness to ramp up staffing levels to avoid backlogs as districts continue filing shovel-ready projects at a record pace to catch up with maintenance and overcrowding that have built up since the state ran out school construction funding nearly two years ago.

“School districts and local taxpayers have made significant local investments to move these projects forward and submit complete applications to the state,” Walrath stated. “These local investments are important for the kids and teachers in their communities.”

Walrath continued by saying that the delay for already submitted projects also forces school districts to push back future projects. That’s the case in Visalia Unified School District (VUSD). Superintendent Dr. Todd Oto said in addition to $23.5 million in construction and $1.4 million in modernization funds, the State’s decision to delay the bonds is pushing back VUSD’s timeline on constructing a new elementary school. Oto said the new, unnamed elementary school planned for northern Visalia will be built, in part, with funding from the reimbursement of district funds used to finance Riverway Elementary, scheduled to open this fall.

“This administration doesn’t believe the State should fund school facilities,” Oto said, referring to Gov. Jerry Brown’s open opposition to Prop. 51.

Walrath said CASH is recommending the Department of Finance and the Legislature provide additional staff to the Office of Public School Construction in the 2017-18 budget to eliminate the backlog of processing applications and that it move up a bond sale to this fall and increase its bond sales set for spring 2018. CASH is urging the Department of Finance to sale $600 million in bonds this fall and increase its spring 2018 bond sale from the $300 million proposed in the budget to $1 billion.

“This will begin to address the $2.4 billing backlog of school projects,” Walrath wrote in his letter to legislators.

At least one legislator is listening. Senator Andy Vidak (R-Hanford) sent a letter to the Governor requesting that he order the staff at the Department of Finance to start selling school bonds that were approved by the voters last November. In the letter, Vidak stated that his Senate District and the entire Central Valley has been hard hit by several years of drought and water allocation cutoffs, resulting in massive unemployment and job losses.  “I am writing to request that you please instruct your folks at the Department of Finance to get off the dime and start selling the bonds to fund these vital school projects,” Sen. Vidak wrote. “We really do not need the state compounding these issues by stalling school bond sales.”

Under the Governor’s May Revised Budget, the Office of Public School Construction has presented a comprehensive grant agreement to the State Allocation Board for approval, and the Administration has proposed legislation to require independent audits of school facilities expenditures. It is anticipated that the State Allocation Board will take action on a final grant agreement at its next meeting on June 28.

The Governor goes on to state that he won’t support the expenditure of Prop. 51 funds until both the grant agreement and the audit requirement are in place “to ensure that taxpayers’ dollars are spent appropriately.”

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