VUSD considers bond to build 5th high school


Visalia Unified will survey residents later this month on possible $300 million school bond

By Reggie Ellis @Reggie_SGN

VISALIA – The City Council’s Oct. 16 decision to allow a 200-unit housing complex in northwest Visalia prompted many questions about land use, planning and road maintenance and improvement schedules. But one of the most concerning issues the development raised was a question that is now more appropriately being asked of the Visalia Unified School District – Are Visalia schools overcrowded?

The simple answer is, yes, but primarily at the high school level. That’s why Visalia Unified School District (VUSD) began discussions in August about placing a new school bond measure on the 2018 ballot. A report presented to the school board at its Aug. 22 meeting, showed that the district will need between $130 million and $150 million to build a fifth high school in the northwest portion of the city.

Redwood High School students file up and over the bridge across Giddings Avenue between the bisected campus. Photo by Reggie Ellis.

Redwood High School students file up and over the bridge across Giddings Avenue between the bisected campus. Photo by Reggie Ellis.

Robert Gröeber, assistant superintendent of administrative services, said the district is considering asking voters for an additional $159 million to upgrade. Only eight of VUSD’s 41 school campuses are less than 20 years old, meaning they don’t qualify for modernization funding from the state. Measure E, the district’s $61 million bond measure approved by voters in 2012, helped modernize five elementary schools and two high schools, leaving about 19 schools waiting for needed improvements to be funded.

“We’re about half way there to modernizing all of our sites,” Groeber said.

Not Optimal
Visalia Unified has designated “optimal” enrollment numbers for elementary, middle school and high school campuses. More than half of VUSD’s elementary schools are within the target enrollment of 650 students per campus, including Conyer (427), Crowley (596), Elbow Creek (521), Highland (553), Houston (595), Ivanhoe (640), Linwood (586), Mineral King (636), Mountain View (626), Pinkham (526), Riverway (598), Royal Oaks (500), Washington (285), Willow Glenn (598). That leaves about 11 elementary schools that are over the target enrollment. And overall, the district is 751 students below the average of having an enrollment of 650 students per elementary school site after building four new elementary schools in the last 10 years with another being planned for next fall.

Divisadero, Green Acres, La Joya and Ridgeview are below the target enrollment of 900 students for middle schools but Valley Oak is well over (951) the mark. Overall, VUSD middle schools are over-enrolled by nearly 600 students for grades 7-8 despite opening Ridgeview in the fall of 2016.

While Golden West and Mt. Whitney are below the optimal 1,800 enrollment mark, El Diamante (2,014) and Redwood (2,271) both exceed it. Between the four comprehensive high schools, VUSD is more than 400 students over the 1,800 mark for each campus.

“It’s more than just housing students and effective educational programs,” Groeber said, “it’s about keeping enrollment smaller so more kids can participate in many things.”

The district already owns 70 acres on the northeast corner of Akers Street and Riggin Avenue that is slated for the fifth high school, across the street from Ridgeview Middle School, which opened last fall. Even without a bond measure, Groeber said the district is legally required to accommodate all new students who enroll in the district.

“It’s not our first choice to add portables, but we will do what we need to accommodate the student enrollment,” Groeber said. “That’s our job. But every time you add portables you cut into playground and open space.”

Public Input
Last month the school board unanimously approved a contract with Godbe Research to conduct a voter survey to gage support for placing a bond measure on the November 2018 ballot. School bond measures must be up for vote during a general election or primary election on an even-numbered year in order to pass with 55% of the vote, instead of the traditional two-thirds vote, under the rules of Proposition 39. The $23,000-$30,000 contact includes the consulting firm developing an 18-22 minute questionnaire to survey 500 registered voters over the phone and through the Internet.

Groeber said the voter survey will begin around Thanksgiving through the end of the month. Godbe Research will then present the survey results to the school board at its Jan. 23, 2018 meeting. The board would make their official decision on whether or not to move forward with a bond measure at its April 24, 2018 meeting, in order to meet the deadlines leading up to the November 2018 election.

“We are reaching out through polling to find out what voters want for our schools, and that includes a discussion of a new high school,” Oto said. “This does not mean the district is moving forward with a bond measure. It means are seeing more information to make more informed decision.”

More Than Before
The final bond payment for Measure G was paid three months ago on Aug. 1, which lowered the property tax burden for Visalia Unified voters from $49 to about $36 per year for the average homeowner.

Before Measure G passed in 1999, Groeber said Visalia Unified had gone to a modified year-round schedule to accommodate the growing population of the city and surrounding area. “We were so impacted we had to do year round school,” he said. “We had 13 schools on three different tracks for the year.”

Measure E allowed the district to build a new middle school, two new elementary schools, add a wing to Redwood High School and upgrade seven elementary campuses with solar panels. But debt payments on Measure E will be made through 2042, meaning there will be a 24-year overlap between it and any new bond placed on the November 2018 ballot. If a new school bond were to pass at the maximum rate of $60 per $100,000 of assessed value, that would add another $65 per year to property taxes in the district, a total of $101 for the average homeowner, or about $8 per month.

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