Orange Unified may divide district to strengthen bond vote – or at least half of it

July 2016

Future OUSD high schoolers implore the board of trustees to issue a bond. From left, Noelle Jenkin, Annika Jenkin, Elijah Alonzo,Carter Smith, Emme Smith, Olivia Collins, Samantha Collins, Bethany Corbin, Garrett Hartfelder, Blake Hartfelder and Cole Corbin. Their message, articulated by Blake Hartfelder, was delivered before a packed room of supporters whose mantra, heading into November, seems to be any bond on the ballot is better than no bond on the ballot. (Photo courtesy Eileen Hartfelder)

By Tina Richards

Disheartened by poll results indicating a general obligation school bond would not pass in November, the Orange Unified School District Board of Trustees is considering splitting the district into two parts, running two separate bond measures, and playing the odds that one will pass.

A poll conducted earlier this spring found that district-wide voters would reject a $340 million bond measure to retrofit and repair OUSD’s four high schools, but voters living in the Orange and El Modena High School service areas would pass it. Voters polled in the Villa Park and Canyon High areas opposed the bond with enough strength to bring the overall numbers below the needed 55 percent supermajority.

Although the board had dismissed the concept of Separate Facilities Improvement Districts (SFIDs) several months ago, the idea was resurrected by the polling data, and bond supporters who urged the trustees to “put something -- instead of nothing -- on the ballot.”

A split decision

The board’s preference is still to float a district-wide general obligation bond, but it wants to preserve its option to put two separate bonds – one for Orange and El Modena, one for Villa Park and Canyon -- on the ballot.  A split ballot measure will require the registrar of voters to realign some precincts to match high school service boundaries; its deadline to begin that process is July 6.

The board held a meeting June 23 to declare its “intention to divide OUSD into two SFIDs” to meet the registrar’s deadline, but will not make a final decision until July 21. Another poll to survey voter attitudes toward a general obligation bond is underway.  Results will be presented to the board on July 14. If the results of this new poll show that voters would indeed support a bond, then trustees will approve a single district-wide measure. If the results are negative, the board will likely opt for SFIDs.

If a separate measure passes in the Orange/El Modena area, those voters would be assessed for improvements to those schools. If Villa Park and Canyon voters approve the measure, then they would be assessed for upgrades/retrofits to those campuses.  If one passes, but not the other, schools in the losing SFID would not be modernized.

Let’s stay together

The board previously rejected Separate Facility Improvement Districts because of their inherent risks. Voters might be confused by two measures; the concept would divide the “unified” district; students at the “losing” schools would be penalized with less competitive facilities. And if both measures passed, would the disparity in property values result in different interest rates for each?

The  SFID  alternative  was brought up again at a public hearing June 9. The meeting room was packed with Villa Park and Canyon High parents who urged the board to stick with a general obligation bond, despite its poor polling results.  Some 40 individuals spoke publicly, each promising the trustees that they would do whatever they could to ensure the bond passed in their areas.

“I wasn’t engaged during Measure K,” one said. “Now I am.”  “I’m  ready  to  walk  precincts, make  phone  calls,  whatever  it takes,” said another. “Keep the district unified,” was the common plea, “we will work together to pass the bond.”

But  others  prodded  the  board to fall back on SFIDs if a district-wide bond was determined to be too risky.  “You have to do something,” one  father emphasized.  

“Our  schools  need  fixing,  you have to take some action.  If you put nothing on the ballot, then we will lose.”

Half and half

“This  is  my  fourth  bond,” Board  President  Rick  Ledesma sighed after two hours of public comments,  “and  we  lost  all  of them by a small margin. I think we  have  to  keep  our  options [SFIDs] open.”

“We’ve  had  three  passionate audiences  before,” John  Ortega advised. “But polling has been reality. The  numbers  have  not lied in 15 years.  We have to take emotions out of it.  We do not have support for a general obligation bond.  You have to have options.”

Tim  Surridge  agreed. “You have to follow the  data. The consultant says we’d likely lose with a general obligation bond. We can’t keep running this thing out.”

“I  got  over  150  emails  from Villa  Park  and  Canyon  High,” Andrea Yamasaki noted, “all of them  supporting  a  single  bond. Polls are a snapshot  in  time. Things will change by November. This is an opportunity for communities to come together.”

Build a better bond

Kathy Moffatt also advocated a district-wide bond over SFIDs.  “A general obligation bond is the easy way to go,” she said. “We were close last time. Bonds have a better chance of passing during a presidential election. I’m opposed to SFIDs, it creates rifts in the school district, and we don’t need that.”

Mark  Wayland  dismissed  the failure of 2014's Measure K as a  result  of  “organized  opposition”  spreading  fears  about  the high cost of a bond. “We need to educate voters,” he said. “Don’t spend money polling, spend it on education.”

The only board member to address the cost issue was Alexia Deligianni-Brydges.  While pollsters have asked voters how much they would be willing to pay per $100,000 of assessed  property value for 30 years, they’ve never been asked if $340 million is too high, or 30 years too long. “The key is the tax rate,” Deligianni-Brydges said. “We need a general obligation bond, but we need to go lower. We need to ask for less, not $340 million.” She suggested that thinking too big was hurting their chances for a successful bond, that starting smaller was a good alternative approach.

At the June 9 meeting, the board voted 5-0 to start the groundwork for potential SFID’s, with Moffatt and Yamasaki opposed. The resolution of intent passed, 7-0, two weeks later.