Visalia Unified may show signs of declining enrollment but city’s population is expected to grow
By Reggie Ellis
VISALIA – Business leaders, non-profit directors and civic officials are all represented on the committee formed to support the passage of a school bond in Visalia. They argue voters this November should support Measure A, a $105 million school bond that will alleviate overcrowding at the high schools, modernize 18 schools, and even provide the community with another competition swimming pool, all for less than $10 per month.
“We recognize that quality schools are essential to the strength and vitality of our community,” said Mike Olmos, retired Visalia city manager and chairman of the Yes On Measure A Committee. “They are the future employees and employers, and quality schools help us attract new businesses. When we as a community choose to support our schools, the State of California matches our support. If we don’t provide the local match, state funding will be lost to other districts. Measure A will provide that match.”
But does Visalia need to pass another bond measure?
Robert Gröeber, assistant superintendent of administrative services, said Visalia Unified School District 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, and overall, the district is 751 students below the average of having an enrollment of 650 students per elementary school site after building five new elementary schools in the last decade. However, middle schools are over-enrolled by nearly 600 students despite opening Ridgeview in the fall of 2016 and high schools are more than 400 students over the 1,800 mark for each campus.
About $75 million of the bond would go toward building a fifth high school, complete with a full gymnasium, performing arts theater, football stadium and swimming pool. VUSD is projecting the state will match that amount to build the new high school on 70 acres the district already owns at the northeast corner of Akers Street and Riggin Avenue.
In a recent report to the VUSD Board of Trustees, Groeber pointed out that overall enrollment in the district is up 3.2% over the last four years and is currently just under 29,000 students.
However, enrollment in the district might be on the decline when you look at the trend in age blocks. High school age enrollment is up 5.8%, or 454 students, since 2015. During that same time period, middle school enrollment is up by 302 students but represented a higher percentage increase, 7.2%. Elementary enrollment numbers are significantly lower over the last four years at 1.6% with just 247 additional students.
Opponents argue that the trend of declining enrollment means Measure A is just a ploy to squeeze more money out of taxpayers. Greober retorted that the other agencies, independent of the school district, are expecting Visalia to grow in the next 20-25 years. According to the Tulare County Association of Governments, Visalia is expected to grow to nearly 219,000 people by the year 2040, or an increase of about 2.6% per year for the next 23 years. Since the first U.S. Census in 1860, Visalia has grown by an average of 3.5% per year and at least 2% per year in the last 20 years.
“There is a pretty consistent and historic trend of Visalia growing by about 3% per year,” Groeber said.
There is also the issue of housing additional teachers and staff. VUSD has been able to keep class sizes under the caps agreed upon by the teachers union. The district’s average class size for grades K-3 is 25.29, or about two students per class less than the 27.5 cap, and 28.19 for grades 4-6, or about three students per class below the cap of 31. And they haven’t been doing it with a lot of new teachers.
Staffing levels in the district for non-credentialed employees has grown at double the rate of teachers. There are nearly 1,400 teachers and counselors working in VUSD, a 7.4% increase since 2015. Yet classified, psychologists, nurses, and administrators have grown by at least 16% during that same time.
In addition to building a fifth high school, the other $34 million in bonds would be used to leverage $50 million in state funds to modernize science labs at the middle schools and make safety improvements at every campus in the wake of the deadliest school shootings in U.S. history.
While no site specific projects were listed at the meeting, a draft listed the following types of modernization projects for 18 schools, including Mt. Whitney High School, La Joya Middle School, Green Acres Middle School, Divisadero Middle School, Global Learning Charter Academy, and 13 elementary schools eligible for matching funds from the state: wheelchair accessibility, roof repair, upgrade electrical; repair and replace heating and ventilation systems, plumbing, play equipment, libraries, physical education facilities, paving; install new public address systems, energy conservation systems, new technology.
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 in an interview last fall. “That’s our job. But every time you add portables you cut into playground and open space.”
Gröeber said 33 of Visalia Unified School District’s 41 school campuses are more than 20 years old, meaning they 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.
Measure E also 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 the school bond were to pass, Visalia property owners would pay $36 per $100,000 of assessed value, which would add another $78 per year to property taxes in the district. Coupled with Measure E, the average homeowner would pay $114 per year, or under $10 per month.
If approve, Measure A would be the district’s third bond measure in the last 20 years and bring the total to an estimated $260 million in local bond revenue, which would be matched by an estimated $300 million in State funding. Measure G, a $41.5 million bond was passed by Visalians in 1999, was paid off on Aug. 1. Visalia Unified voters are still paying for Measure E, a $60.1 million school bond approved in 2012. Measure E will cost the average homeowner about $36 per year for the next 24 years. If passed, the new bond would cost the average homeowner another $61 per year for the next 30 years and a total of $97 per year until Measure E is paid off in 2042.