School board ditches high school-focused bond plan
School board ditches high school-focused bond plan
Alameda’s Board of Education voted unanimously Tuesday to take another step toward putting a bond measure on the November ballot.
The vote capped a wild evening that saw a pair of board members – Barbara Kahn and Trish Spencer – announce they wouldn’t support a proposal to ask voters for a bond focused on transforming Alameda’s two main high schools, moves that appeared to kill the district’s bond plans since four votes will be needed to put a proposal on the ballot.
But Trustee Mike McMahon asked his fellow board members if they would consider signing off on more general ballot language – something that will give the board more time to determine what voters might be willing to pay $179.5 million for.
“That’s my last, heroic effort to move this forward,” McMahon said.
The district and its architect have worked for most of the school year to catalogue the needs of its schools and support facilities, putting together a comprehensive facilities plan – the district’s first such plan in half a century. The board accepted the plan, which details $591 million in critical and future needs, on a 4-1 vote, with Spencer saying the plan doesn’t contain all of the information the board sought and that it focuses more on what parents want instead of what is needed.
The board considered but rejected a proposal to prioritize upgrades to Alameda’s two main high schools that board members had earlier agreed to move forward with. Kahn, Spencer and McMahon voted against a plan to request $160 million to $170 million for the high schools, $13 million to $14 million for district-wide upgrades for technology infrastructure and $2.5 million to $3 million for security and safety upgrades.
Kahn said she feared the board had moved too quickly on the proposal to focus its first of what could be three bonds on the high schools. She said she was worried voters might not approved such a bond – 55 percent will need to say yes for a measure to pass – and suggested the board consider waiting to put both a bond and a parcel tax renewal on the 2016 ballot.
“I feel that we have rushed to choose the current path so that we can get this on the next ballot, and while I appreciate that we need to move forward and address some very real needs, rushing into a decision without deep exploration by the board or by the community of the many options that we have and a very clear set of priorities, we may find ourselves with a bond that won’t pass,” Kahn said.
Sarah Olaes, who has helped lead efforts to pass school parcel taxes in Alameda, said it would be “totally unrealistic” to expect voters to sign off on both a bond and a parcel tax on the same ballot. She chastised board members for not getting community input on spending priorities sooner.
“We are where we are because of this board not having the leadership that it should have had 18 months ago. Shame on you,” Olaes said.
McMahon acknowledged that the board hasn’t conducted larger conversations about whether the schools Alameda has now are the ones the district should continue to operate. Spencer and others who attended Tuesday’s meeting questioned whether the district should consider consolidating Alameda and Encinal high schools; before the process to draft the master plan was initiated, district staff discussed the possibility of running a smaller number of bigger elementary schools.
Only a handful of speakers addressed the board on the facilities items. A pair of elementary school parents said they wanted to see more money directed to making critical repairs to the district’s other schools, while members of Community Action for a Sustainable Alameda asked the board to consider spending money on solar panels that they said could save the district money on its electric bills.
“We have critical needs in some of our elementary schools that only are going to get more dire in the next five years,” said Solana Henneberry, a parent of twins at Otis Elementary School and school board candidate.
Board president Margie Sherratt said she’d like to see a bond meet some of those needs, while Spencer said she wanted solar panels included. Spencer said she wanted a bond to take the needs of the district’s teachers into account; Alameda Education Association president Audrey Hyman said the union’s teachers felt left out of the process of deciding what a bond would pay for.
Hyman told The Alamedan that the union hasn’t taken a formal position on the proposed bond. Kahn had said earlier that teachers didn’t support the proposed spending priorities.
“We are interested to see what is in the final bond language,” Hyman wrote in response to a reporter’s query on Twitter.
Board member Niel Tam said he thought the bond should focus on the high schools, saying upgrades would be completed by the time students in elementary school are ready to attend. Board members also discussed the possibility of seeking $131 million to cover critical needs at all the district’s schools, a proposal some dismissed as a “fix-it” plan they didn’t want to put before voters.
Spencer said she wanted the board to do a better job of prioritizing schools fixes. McMahon said he thinks this could be the only bond the board will be able to put forward for a decade, due to limits on the amount of bond debt school districts can take on.
The board is now expected to consider proposed bond language on June 10. More detailed language laying out what bond money would be spent on won’t be due until the end of July.