Fifth high school funding falls short

The cost of the new campus has changed and available state funds are no longer available, leaving district officials to reevaluate plans 

By Annabelle Williamson
Special to The Sun-Gazette 

VISALIA – Plans for a fifth high school in Visalia have hit a snag as the estimated costs to build the new school have risen and anticipated state funds for the project have disappeared.

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.

But 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 the general election ballot in November.

Measure A states that the $75 million that was set aside for the construction of the fifth high school does not have to build the new school. If additional funds to build the new campus don’t come through, VUSD can spend the Measure A funds on other projects listed in the bond. District officials say it’s up to the school board to decide what the priorities are and where the money from Measure A is used.

Public opinion on new campus 

As VUSD considers how to move forward, school district and board officials have turned to the public for input. The district recently put out a public survey and teachers, administrators, parents and community members had the chance to provide feedback on the design for the new school. The estimated cost of the new school increased after those results came in, school district officials said. 

The latest estimation — which includes the cost of a stadium, baseball and softball fields, a theater, tennis courts, a gym — is based on data from other high school construction projects in surrounding districts, according to district officials. 

On Feb. 12 and 24, Dr. Tamara Ravalín, VUSD superintendent, and other district officials hosted outreach meetings where parents, teachers and community members were able to question the district. 

Discussions at these meetings were wide-ranging. Attendees asked district officials a variety of questions: Why does a new school need to be built? Why doesn’t the district try to redraw the boundary lines so that student populations are more balanced? If the new high school doesn’t get new facilities, how long will Visalia have to wait until they do? 

Robert Gröeber, assistant superintendent of administrative services, is leading the implementation of the Measure A project. “I think one of the important things that we hear … is folks think this high school is about growth and it’s not about growth,” Gröeber said. 

 “What we were trying to focus on is increasing the access and opportunity for all kids. What we know is in smaller high schools, more kids have the opportunities to participate in those extra and co-curricular activities that connect them to school,” Gröeber said. 

VUSD’s ultimate goal is to cap all high schools at 1,800 students, and to have each of Visalia’s five middle schools feed into their own high schools, Gröeber said. Ridgeview would no longer send kids to Redwood and El Diamante. After the new school is built, Ridgeview would serve as its feeder.

Green Acres would feed into Redwood, La Joya into El Diamante, Divisadero into Mount Whitney, and Valley Oak into Golden West.

“Without the fifth high school, they will all be over 2,000,” Grober said. “That’s too large to ensure equity and access and opportunity for all kids.”

Balancing campuses

John Crabtree, president of the Visalia Unified Board of Education, said going forward, the board must decide what to prioritize and reckon with what amount of state funds, if any, will be available. 

“That’s a decision we have to make and see which option has the most logic. We do need a new high school, even if there isn’t an increase in enrollment. With redistricting, each high school would be above the ideal 1,800 student population.” Crabtree said.

If the new school is built, enrollment numbers at the pre-existing high schools are expected to lower, as the new high school will be the biggest, with 2,000 students projected to be on its campus after opening.

After the fifth high school opens, the district’s student population estimates are based on projections for VUSD’s middle schools. According to the district’s calculations, in 2028, Redwood is projected to be at 1,430 students, falling from today’s 2,365. 

Mount Whitney, which has the smallest enrollment, is expected to be at 1,604, coming from the current 1,653. El Diamante is projected to be 1,918 students, down from 2,059. Golden West is expected to be at 1,636, coming from 1,823, according to Gröeber. 

Michael Waters, VUSD area administrator and former El Diamante principal, says the new high school’s beginnings might mirror El Diamante’s.

 “After conducting quite a bit of research, it was decided to start El Diamante with 9th graders only. The main reason was that very few students would likely want to transfer for their 10th grade year after starting at another high school,” Waters said. 

If the funding gap can’t be resolved, The fifth high school has the potential to be built in phases the way El Diamante was built. El Diamante initially opened without a pool, all-weather track, and shop buildings. Those elements came over a five to seven year period as new money became available for construction projects.

Potential for shared facilities

Darice Vieira, a VUSD bond oversight committee member, has been actively engaging in the process of designing Visalia’s fifth high school and exploring how to best use Measure A funds. “Shared facilities are hard, but because of the cost to build them, I don’t know how realistic it is to think that every high school in town is ever going to have their own stadium,” Vieira said. 

VUSD hopes to fund a portion of the new school through state funds. But after the amount of potential funding from the state dropped, the district is considering having the fifth campus share facilities with other surrounding high schools, like how El Diamante shares Golden West’s stadium. 

The new high school could share facilities such as a stadium, pool, or theater until there is more money available for these buildings. Vieira said the district should adjust the wording on the survey it uses to gauge the public’s opinion on the new campus. 

“I think our survey needs to say, ‘if you could have a new high school, but you aren’t going to get any of those facilities for perhaps, 5-10 years, is that still something that you think is more important than balancing out and using the shared facilities that we already have?” Vieira said. 

Although this might be a possibility, parents and community members at the February meetings have raised the question of how it would affect culture at the high school.

“You can do things without having a theater on your campus, but you have a hard time competing in things such as water polo and swimming if you don’t have a pool on your campus.” Vieira said. 

Now that a chance at state money is unsure, the district will be reassessing how it will proceed with the new school. 

If they choose to move forward with the fifth campus, the process can take three to five years to complete, according to Crabtree, VUSD board president, which is why submitting plans early to the state for any future funding is one of the board’s top priorities. 

Local school bond skepticism 

Prop. 13’s resounding defeat in Tulare County can’t all be blamed on Visalia Unified’s muddling of Measure A. During the recent primary election, there wasn’t much political capital for any school bond or school property tax measures throughout the county. 

Porterville Unified voters didn’t pass Measure L, a $33.4 million school bond to construct, modernize and renovate classrooms, restrooms and school facilities; and for repairing and replacing leaky roofs and making health and safety improvements. The bond needed 55 percent to pass, and as of Wednesday, 54 percent of the vote was against the measure. 

Just south of Porterville on Highway 65, Terra Bella voters turned down Measure M, a $5 million school bond. The single-school district of about 900 students garnered just 39% of the vote on election night. With only about 100 votes left to count, there aren’t enough absentee ballots to make a difference in the outcome.

Kingsburg Joint Union High School District’s $17 million bond measure had a better shot at passing, but was still trailing by 3 percent after election night. The district’s electorate is divided among Tulare, Kings and Fresno counties. Tulare and Kings make up 25 percent of the vote, while most of the district lies in Fresno County. 

As of last Wednesday, the measure was still trailing by 3 percent in Fresno, and Tulare and Kings counties were less enthusiastic about the bond as it was failing there by 6 and 15 percent, respectively.

This story was co-published with the Redwood Gigantea, Redwood High School’s student newspaper. 

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