September 2018

Guest Commentary:

Is school bond money living up to its potential?

By Rick Barnett

Measure K was a $296 million bond proposed in 2014. The measure appeared an ambitious attempt to rebuild OUSD’s four high schools, and was accompanied by artists’ renderings of stunning new facilities. Because of anticipated costs and the obvious need for further bond issuances to cover the costs, the measure was aggressively opposed and narrowly defeated. 

In 2016, Measure S was placed on the ballot. The opening text of that measure eliminated reference to replacement or construction of new facilities and emphasized refurbishment. It also reduced the bond to $288 million,  the clear inference being that the project was being scaled back, with an emphasis on restoration instead of reconstruction.  Measure S also highlighted the necessity of its passage to preserve access to state matching funds. It passed with a comfortable margin.

Notwithstanding the scaled-back parameters of Measure S, it appears the OUSD board may be on track with its original plan to build the stunning campuses with their correspondingly stunning costs, and to date there is no assurance of state funding assistance. I say this, based upon my understanding that the board has all but committed over $200 million of the funds to replace the science buildings at its four high schools.

Villa Park High has had “temporary” portable classrooms for decades. Currently, the campus has 24 portable classrooms. The new Villa Park science building will have 16 new classrooms. However, instead of constructing this new building on vacant land on campus, a permanent building that currently holds 10 classrooms will be demolished and replaced by the new science building.  As a result, at the end of the science building phase, Villa Park High will still have 18 portable classrooms.  

At Canyon High, the science building phase actually includes the demolition and replacement of the food services and administration buildings.  The administration will be relocated into the new science building.  Also, the plans include the installation of 100 new parking spaces, parking spaces that are not on the list of approved uses of the Measure S funds.  

With the estimated cost for the science building phase of construction for the four high schools at $208 million, only $80 million remains for electrical, roofing, plumbing, earthquake safety, fire safety, and disability access for the rest of the campus facilities. Moreover, each high school is allocated one-fourth, or $72 million, of the Measure S funds, and since the science building phase of Canyon High’s project is estimated to cost $69.5 million, only $2.5 million will remain to address the rest of Canyon’s problems. When the Measure S projects are complete, the community will have spectacular science buildings, but the buildings that are 40-65 years old will, for the most part, remain in their current dilapidated condition.  

Additional school  bonds are undoubtedly in the works. This would appear to be the case regardless of what is planned for the remaining facilities or who is elected to the board in November. 

In light of the Measure K ballot results, it is apparent that many members of the community seek the stunning new campuses, irrespective of the extremely high construction costs. There are tangible benefits that come with the stunning campuses, such as enhanced property values. I recently sought to rent my old home in the Tustin School District and competition amongst the potential tenants was fierce. The primary tenant interest was to get access to Foothill High School. 

For those residents more concerned about costs, their options appear limited to electing board members with more conservative expenditure goals, and opposing future bond measures they deem excessive. However, I suspect many voters will resent the high costs, and see the expenditures as a violation of the more conservative financial policy of Measure S. They may perceive Measure S as a bait-and-switch tactic by the OUSD board to get the bond funds and, thereafter, pursue the more costly campus improvements. This could make it more difficult to pass the additional bond measures which will be needed to complete the campuses, leaving us with a real mess.

So where do we go from here? I suggest we all pay close attention to the OUSD school board elections in November and scrutinize the school bonds which will inevitably follow. It will be interesting to see how this plays out. 

Rick Barnett is a longtime Villa Park resident, father, grandfather and former city council member.