March 25, 2023
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Billion-dollar bond bonanza bound for ballot box


Tri-county school and community college districts are seeking passage this fall of bond measures totaling more than $1 billion, with many officials saying outdated buildings and overcrowded classrooms are the reason for the onslaught of financing initiatives.

Across the region, at least 11 districts have successfully placed bond measures on the November ballot. The largest include a $288 million request from Santa Barbara City College and a $275 million initiative from Cuesta College in San Luis Obispo. The Conejo Valley School District in Ventura County is seeking approval for a $197 million measure, and the San Luis Coastal School District is pushing for $177 million in new bonds.

The remaining bond proposals range between $4.5 million and $90 million, and each would provide funding for facilities and infrastructure. No money would go toward salaries or expenses outside of new construction and renovations. Under Proposition 39, passed in 2000, voter approval of each bond issue requires a supermajority of 55 percent.

In the years since the 2008 recession, state budget cuts have resulted in decreased funding for education and a growing need for improved facilities at many colleges statewide, said Lori Gaskin, president of Santa Barbara City College. “There is a pent-up demand for us to modernize our facilities,” she said. “And all of the colleges are doing that.”

But elementary schools and high schools in almost every area of the Tri-Counties are facing the same dire need. At many schools in the Santa Maria-Bonita School District, cafeterias do not fit the number of students who regularly occupy them, and students must eat lunch in four to five different shifts to accommodate crowds, said Matt Beecher, the district’s assistant superintendent for business services.

The district’s proposed $45 million bond would fund the building of a new elementary school and improvements such as repairs and upgrades to existing campuses, he said. With three of the district’s elementary schools enrolling at least 1,000 students this year, “severe overcrowding” is a problem that has to be solved, Beecher said. Currently, the district has as many as 16,000 students and 19 different schools.

With a $27 million bond slated for the November 2014 ballot, the Montecito Union School District does not necessarily face the same extreme crowding issues; it has just one school and about 500 students total. “We do not have a crowding issue, but at a 12-year enrollment high, we’re being very mindful of our spaces,” said Superintendent Tammy Murphy. However, she said the bond’s funding would pay for buildings that are out-of-date and deemed unsafe by regulatory agencies.

“Seventy-one percent of the work is categorized as either legally required or deferred maintenance,” she said.

The Montecito bond would pay for making school restrooms American Disabilities Act-compliant and fixing outdated plumbing and electrical lines in buildings that are between 20 to 80 years old, Murphy said. The money would also go toward a permanent cafeteria for the single-school district, as it currently only has a food truck.

Nearly every district cites outdated buildings including portable classrooms that need to be replaced with permanent structures. The Carpinteria School District’s $90 million bond proposal would help pay for the replacement of 63 portable classrooms. Assistant Superintendent Lucinda Abbott said the school’s newest facilities date back to the 1960s and the district hasn’t proposed a bond since 1999.

“What’s different about Carpinteria is that we have not had as many bonds,” she said. “Other school districts have been chipping away at this, and we’re just at a point where we have to do that as well.”
But the district also has the same laundry list of plumbing, roofing and electrical repairs as many other tri-county districts.

“It’s a lot of stuff because we got a lot of work to do just to get it to normal standards,” Abbott said, later adding that the state is no longer a viable source of income. “We can’t go to the state and say we need money…the state isn’t funding school facilities right now.”

Having homeowners essentially foot the bill for education funding is a last resort for many districts, but it’s not an uncommon option. According to Gil Stork, president of Cuesta College, state budgetary cuts have resulted in less funding for education and as a result, facilities that are not necessarily up to standards.

“The state is not continuing to fund capital improvements on an annual basis,” he said. “You can only do a paint touch-up or fix a leaky sink until it all starts to fall apart…When people come on campus, they expect industry-standard technology, and we don’t have that.”

Cuesta College attempted to pass a $310 million bond in 2006, but Stork said the proposal failed to pass. By reducing the bond’s amount, which would have paid for a larger expansion of the college’s north campus, Cuesta is hoping that this next bond gets passed since it’s looking to fix some of the same things that failed to receive repair after its last bond proposal failed.

Kim Holmes, executive assistant to the Superintendent at San Luis Coastal Unified School District, said the district has been prudent and reasonable with its bond proposals. The district last put one on the ballot back in 1990 and it was paid off in 2001, she said.

The Santa Barbara Taxpayer’s Association has endorsed SBCC’s $288 million bond. Community groups, homeowners associations and other organizations that represent constituents who would foot the bills have not been vocally opposed to the bond proposals.

“The ballots are not out yet so I’m sure there are a lot of people who are not aware [of the measures] yet,” Holmes said.

But according to Murphy, bond proposals for improved schools could mean greater property values in the long-term, benefitting the taxpayers who would be paying for it all. “When you have a great school … people want to move into that district,” Murphy said. “So homes sell, and there’s a great sense of community. It definitely helps property values.”