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By Lillian Boyd and Shawn Raymundo
Some students at Dana Hills High School encounter rodents so often, they’ve nicknamed them.
On hotter days, students perspire at their desks while listening to teachers give math lessons, and HVAC mechanics are constantly being called on site to repair the aging system. Contrarily, in other classrooms on campus, students and teachers are adding layers to keep warm.
While the issue of school bonds is divisive, proponents and opponents of the latest proposals can agree that aging school facilities need to be brought into the 21st century.
San Clemente and Dana Point voters will decide by March 3 whether property owners will pay off a bond to improve local school facilities through Measures H and I, respectively.
Despite the identified needs for improvement and remodeling of aging public school facilities, the bond measures have garnered debate between advocates for upgraded schools and those who oppose paying more taxes and how Capistrano Unified School District manages its budget.
THE BALLOT MEASURES
In each of the ballot measures, voters are asked whether they would support a tax levy of $.03 for every $100 of assessed home value in order “to repair aging classrooms and facilities at schools” serving their respective areas, “fix deteriorating roofs, plumbing/electrical systems and upgrade/construct classrooms/labs, and technology to support college and career readiness in math, science, technology, arts, and skilled trades.”
The assessed value of a property—different from a fair market value and typically less than that—is the valuation of real estate that municipalities use in order to determine tax levies.
For voters in San Clemente and Capistrano Beach, the levy, if Measure H passes, is expected to raise $120 million in bonds, which would go toward only schools within that boundary, referred to as the Southern Schools Facilities Improvement District, or SFID 2.
The tax levy for the Western School Facilities Improvement District, or SFID 3, which comprises the cities of Dana Point, Aliso Viejo and Laguna Niguel, is expected to generate an estimated $300 million, according to Measure I.
In its resolutions that the CUSD Board of Trustees unanimously passed last fall, approving the placement of the bonds on the upcoming election ballot, the district notes that the total estimated debt, including interest, in San Clemente and Capo Beach is $209 million. The total debt amount for residents in SFID 3 is estimated to be $519 million.
CUSD anticipates the collection of the tax to expire in fiscal year 2048-49.
A large percentage of the proceeds raised from both bonds will go toward funding new buildings and classroom renovations at San Clemente High School, Dana Hills High School, Aliso Niguel High School and Niguel Hills Middle School.
CUSD officials had previously explained about $90 million of the $120 in million proceeds raised in San Clemente and Capo Beach will be used to modernize and replace aging classrooms at San Clemente High, which was built more than 50 years ago.
If Measure H passes, San Clemente High would see a new student services center to include administrative and health offices, a library and cafeteria near the center of the campus. Money would also fund the construction of a performing arts theater, as well as a 50-meter pool and other support facilities.
During a recent tour of San Clemente High led by Principal Chris Carter, he noted that other than some upgrades funded by a 1999 districtwide bond measure, several of the classrooms housing the math and science programs haven’t changed much since the early 1960s.
“The only thing that was redone is, all of the HVAC in here was completely redone in 1999, so all of the asbestos installation, all of the ducting, all of the air was completely redone in 1999 and they added the skylights in all of the buildings as well,” Carter said on the tour.
The goal of modernizing many of the existing structures at San Clemente High, Carter later added, is so that curricula, particularly the STEM-based instruction—science, technology, engineering and mathematics—can be taught in 21st century classrooms.
Additional repairs and upgrades include replacing roofs, plumbing, electrical systems, air conditioning, walls, flooring, paint, furniture and technology infrastructure to name a few, according to CUSD.
At Dana Hills High, the district intends to spend more than $130 million of SFID 3 bond proceeds from Measure I. Those monies will be earmarked for the installation of a heating, ventilation and air conditioning system in the gym, and construction of classroom buildings to replace the old portable classrooms.
Those same funds will also pay to build a new gym, a theater for instruction in music, dance and theater, as well as athletic facilities for fitness and aquatic programs.
Principal Brad Baker has been offering tours for community members for a firsthand look at the state of Dana Hills facilities.
“I want to open the doors for the parents and community members who don’t experience our facilities every day, and I’d like them to see firsthand the campus and give them the opportunity to make important determinations on their own,” Baker said. “Maybe they’ve see the theater, or front office or gym before, but they don’t walk the hallways or see the classrooms or use the restroom facilities. So it’s important to give tours to those who don’t normally experience everyday life at Dana Hills, so they can make informed decisions.”
Elementary and middle schools in Dana Point and San Clemente will also undergo several upgrades from the bond funds. About $3.5 million of the Measure I proceeds will go to R.H. Dana Elementary School, repairing damaged and deteriorating roofs, and replacing aging plumbing, gas and electrical equipment, among others.
The remaining proceeds generated from Measure H will pay for similar facility improvements at San Clemente’s elementary and middle schools, including Concordia Elementary, Las Palmas Elementary and Bernice Ayer Middle School.
Many of the specific renovation projects CUSD hopes to complete were based on a report prepared Kitchell Corporation, the construction company, which assessed all the needs of every school within the district. The Facilities Condition Assessments, most commonly referred to as the Kitchell Report, made a specific list of improvements that were prioritized by the district.
“The Kitchell Report looked at every one of our schools and told us what was broken,” Carter said.
MEASURE M FAILURE
CUSD had previously attempted to secure bond funding for districtwide facility improvements back in 2016, when it proposed the $889 million Measure M bond. That bond measure, however, failed to gain enough support, receiving only 45% approval—falling short of the 55% threshold to pass.
Had Measure M passed, property owners would have been taxed $43 for every $100,000 of assessed home value. The total debt to repay the bond was estimated at $1.8 billion, according to news reports.
Trustees including Patricia Holloway, a representative of CUSD’s Area 3, which covers San Clemente, have previously acknowledged that Measure M’s failure had more to do with a lack of specificity in detailing how the funds would be spent and where.
To address those concerns, CUSD opted to go with regional bond measures, targeting the areas with the oldest schools, rather than have a districtwide proposal. The two resolutions the trustees passed last October also outline several conditions and accountability measures.
The CUSD board agreed to create independent oversight committees comprising local community members who will be tasked with ensuring that the bond monies are being spent appropriately.
The resolutions also state that none of the proceeds can be used for teacher and administrative salaries or other operating expenses such as pensions, nor can the funds pay for computers and technology devices.
Per the resolutions, the trustees also committed the district to annually set aside 2%-3% of CUSD’s operating funds for routine facility maintenance. Additionally, the district will also be required to set aside money—not from the bond funds—equivalent to 2%-4% of the bonds issued, which will go toward deferred maintenance for the construction projects.
COMMUNITY OUTREACH AND VARYING PERSPECTIVES
“I opposed Measure M back in 2016, because I feel it didn’t have sufficient controls,” said CUSD Board President Jim Reardon at a Dana Point Civic Association Coffee Chat. “I didn’t feel we were going to make impactful change in school districts through that bond. Now, we have something structured more to my liking, and to maintain my integrity, I’m here to support it.”
Reardon, alongside Board Vice President Martha McNicholas, spoke at the coffee chat event on Jan. 14 at The Coffee Importers in Dana Point. The civic association invites leaders in the community on a monthly basis to discuss issues impacting residents.
Reardon, who has identified himself as fiscally conservative, says the most obvious opposition to the bonds is the additional taxes.
“A person who is potentially anti-tax like me would have a lot of complaints about the things going on in the state of California,” Reardon said. “Priorities at the Sacramento level are skewed way in the wrong direction. . . . But because of the way school facility funding works in the state of California today, unless there is new development in a community, no money is organically raised for facilities. We’re stuck with the facilities that were built under the old funding models.”
It is money that can only be spent for facilities within the areas the money is being raised in, Reardon said, adding that the bond money would be the only source of money available to Capo Unified to do anything to Dana Hills, or any other school facility in these communities.
At the coffee chat, Reardon and McNicholas emphasized that the bonds, by law, could not be used on salaries.
“It’s not like we’re trying to give our financial officer a big bonus or give all of our teachers a 25% raise,” McNicholas said. “None of the bond money can be spent that way.”
Craig Alexander, an attorney, former candidate for a CUSD seat, and a signer for the “no” vote on Measure I, has countered that although the bond money would not directly go toward salaries, it would still leave room in the district budget for salaries.
At a panel discussion hosted by the Laguna Niguel Chamber of Commerce (co-sponsored by Dana Point and Aliso Viejo chambers), Robert Ming suggested that CUSD set aside money and budget for facility improvements over time with available funds. He referenced his approach while on city council to funding the construction of Laguna Niguel Community Center, where the panel discussion was being held.
“After a few years, we were able to build this building you’re now sitting in. We built it on time, under budget, and we paid for it with cash . . . cash that we had saved up,” Ming said. “You can do that if you budget every year and set aside money in an account. If you want capital improvements, it takes discipline.”
McNicholas argues that if CUSD were to do this, they would face legal threats.
“What I keep hearing is live within your means,” McNicholas said. “The problem is we don’t have the means. Even with a $500 million budget, we serve almost 50,000 kids, and we are funded at almost the lowest level in Orange County.”
She added that top administrators in the district are paid comparatively less when looking at how other superintendents in other districts are paid.
“We are spending in the neighborhood of $40 million a year on just maintenance and upkeep on existing facilities,” McNicholas said. “At some point, these facilities can’t be kept up anymore.”
“We can’t do what the City of Laguna Niguel did,” McNicholas said. “They saved money every year, and you’re right, they built this building on time and under budget. But we can’t do that. Everything we have goes to education. We would be sued if we took (a portion) or budget from our kids.”
Everyone agrees that students should go to schools that are free from maintenance problems, Alexander said at the panel discussion.
“…But we’re being asked to put a bond on top of a bond,” Alexander said. “We’re also being told we’re going to have more bonds in the future. I believe (CUSD) is mismanaging the funds, with 86% of the budget going toward salary.”
RESOURCES FOR VOTERS
To read more on the perspective opposing Measures H and I, find Alexander’s guest column for Dana Point Times. Alexander is a signer for the “no” vote of Measure I. To read more on the perspective favoring Measures H and I, find Marv Sherrill’s guest column.
To read the measures in entirety, click here.
Community members interested in touring the high school facilities can email Dana Hills Principal Brad Baker at firstname.lastname@example.org. To schedule a tour of the San Clemente High campus with Principal Chris Carter, email his office manager Darla Jones at email@example.com.