After several heated forums about a possible school facilities bond, San Ramon Valley Unified's Board of Education met Tuesday morning to discuss the realities of implementing a measure to improve school infrastructure.
Although the bond amount has yet to be determined, the district has identified a list of potential modernization and capital projects, including cost-saving projects such as solar panel installation, that amount to more than $299 million across 17 schools. Modernization includes replacement of aging roofs and HVAC systems, expanded digital bandwidth and wireless access, security upgrades and energy efficiency upgrades.
The board also received results of a voter survey conducted in January to assess community opinion about the measure. EMC Research interviewed 600 residents telephonically, asking random groups to determine the feasibility of a bond measure at $190 and $260 million.
"With the current economy, rising tax aversion and a belief that the schools are already in excellent shape all equal a challenging environment in which to pass a bond measure," said EMC's Sara LaBatt, adding that surveys showed residents support the measure at a 55 percent threshold with little different between the $190 and $260 million marks.
The bond is expected to cost property owners between $20 and $30 per $100,000 assessed valuation and be paid back over 25 years. The facilities bond would be the third such bond passed by San Ramon Valley voters in 14 years. Measure D, a $70 million bond from 1998, will be paid off in 2018 and the $260 million Measure A bond passed in 2002 should be paid off by 2027. The 2002 bond was augmented by over $90 million in state matching funds and over half a billion dollars in developer funds.
"There is not very much movement in the vote after hearing information. (Resident's) minds may be largely made up on new taxes," LaBatt continued. "Accountability measures and local control are more compelling elements than what the measure will fund."
While most residents surveyed believe that the district can be trusted to properly manage tax dollars, 85 percent said the quality of school facilities are excellent or good an 61 percent believe there is great or some need for additional funding.
"They're really not seeing a pressing need at this time for money in the district," LaBatt said. "There's not a lot of wiggle room, but there's enough. There's some potential here but certainly not an overwhelming positive."
Women and voters ages 40-64 are the most supportive of the measure. Seventy percent of Democrats would vote for the bond, while 62 percent of parents surveyed agreed with the bond and 51 percent of residents who are not SRVUSD parents would also vote for it. However, 46 percent of survey takers said they would vote for the bond measure's expected cost.
"We feel very strongly that going through the process of sharing the story on how you need this money as a district, to show that accountability, will be really key in this measure," TBWB Strategies' Sarah Stern said, recommending November 2012 as a realistic vote date.
Stern and LaBatt recommended that the district conduct a tracking survey to retest key measure components for a November election date. The district also needs to finalize the tax rate, its 75-word statement for voters, update survey data and complete the project list after community feedback.
To that end, the board decided to create a superintendent's exploratory committee to look at prioritizing projects and assess how best to let the public know why a facilities bond is necessary.
"The public doesn't feel a deep sense of urgency regarding facility improvements, expansion except perhaps in the Dougherty Valley. They think we're doing great and ask 'What's our needs here?' I think it's, ironically, one of the greatest challenges we have," said Superintendent Steven Enoch. "There continues to be financial fatigue brought on by the great recession. The community loves its schools but they are cautions about incurring additional debt at this time without better understanding of the need."
Enoch said the Board of Education would discuss restructuring some of the bond debt to prevent spiking and possibly incorporate the new bond without significantly increasing the current tax rate. All members expressed concern about the urgent need to inform residents about necessary upgrades and modernizations before a June or, most likely, a November election.
"I think November is very doable, but I don't think that that's very much time," said Board Clerk Rachel Hurd. "I think that we need to realize that the work to plant the seeds of need…means the district communicating these needs is going to go a long way. In the next four to six to eight weeks, we're fine-tuning the project list. From spring break on, we're making the need case."
Although the district's Facilities Advisory Committee advocated for the measure to appear on the June 5 ballot (November 2012 would create a "noisy" election among other things, said Committee Chair Chris Kenber), board members cautiously agreed that potentially placing the bond on a November ballot would give the district more time to specify projects and timelines.
"There is absolutely no question that we have a need for more facilities in this district.
Truth be told, there is no ideal timing for an election right now. But the bottom line is we're going to have to spend money on some of these facilities and if we don't have money to do it, we're going to have to take money from the general fund," said Boardmember Denise Jennison. "2014 in my mind seems too far off to wait because we don't know what to expect with education funding. Considering the way we've been trending for the last couple years, I'm not overly optimistic."
The Board of Education will make an official decision during its Feb. 21 meeting. The public, which during four community forums and in surveys was split on the merits of the bond, is invited to speak during public comment.