Trustees mull bond for school fixes

Trustees mull bond for school fixes

Michele Ellson

School board trustees agreed Tuesday they need to put a bond before voters to help pay for millions of dollars in fixes Alameda’s schools need – they just need to figure out what they want to ask voters to pay for, and when.

“We have a lot to think about and to work through,” Trustee Margie Sherratt said during the school board’s meeting Tuesday.

Board members began the process of grappling with whether to focus a future bond request on fixes for Alameda’s high schools or to ask for money to help pay for upgrades for more of the district’s schools, and also, when a bond request should be put before voters.

The board will work to chart a clearer path over the weeks to come, and a plan for moving forward could be worked out before trustees go on break in July. But district staff said it will be hard to know how much the district can ask for – and what a bond issue will cost property owners – until the board is much closer to pulling the trigger on it.

“The numbers will change drastically between now and 2014,” Chief Business Officer Robert Shemwell said.

Trustee Mike McMahon said he thinks the board should ask voters to approve a bond in 2014 that’s focused on renovating Historic Alameda High School, upgrading Kofman Auditorium, fixing the pools at both Alameda and Encinal high schools and modernizing Encinal High and that additional facilities needs should be put on hold.

“I don’t believe we can wait to decide this particular issue very much longer,” McMahon said. “The windows for these things get smaller and smaller. We only have 12 months decide whether this is something we need to do this district.”

McMahon expressed frustration over the district’s most recent bond issue, Measure C, saying the district spread nearly $90 million in local and state bond funds across all the district’s schools over the past decade with little to show.

“The last bond measure showed that tinkering at the edges of these school sites is not what this district needs,” McMahon said, adding that he thinks schools leaders will need to demonstrate that they’ll spend future bond money right.

But Sherratt questioned whether a bond should address the needs of Alameda’s other schools, in order to draw the approval of a broader array of voters. Sherratt, who said she also thinks a bond should go on a 2014 ballot, noted that several prior efforts to pass bonds to retrofit the high school were unsuccessful.

Trustee Barbara Kahn questioned whether the district could get 55 percent of voters to sign off on funding for facilities needs in 2014.

“If we’re going to build this spirit in our community, we need to begin to work at it right away,” said Kahn, who said 2016 might even be a “stretch.”

Superintendent Kirsten Vital noted that the district’s $12 million-a-year Measure A parcel tax expires just two years after that, in 2018.

“We count on Measure A dramatically,” Vital said.

Trustees are looking at putting a bond on the ballot in an even-numbered year because the percentage of voters whose approval they need is lower. District leaders hope they'll be able to leverage state school bond funding to pay for fixes; the state has already spent most of the $36 billion voters have approved, though state leaders could seek voter approval for more bonds.

"It’s really all about the plan, knowing where you want to go," Shemwell said.

Board members offered their thoughts after receiving a draft report detailing the outcome of a series of community meetings designed to gauge public opinion on potential future uses for a trio of buildings on the Alameda High School campus that have been vacated because they don’t meet state seismic safety standards. During that process, the district developed rough cost estimates of up to $34 million to repair the buildings so they can again be used by students.

Facilitator Jeff Cambra said members of stakeholder groups who participated in the meetings – a list that included preservationists and Realtors, teachers and Alameda High alumni, activists and a pair of local architects – want to know how much space the district needs to fulfill students’ needs. And they wanted to prioritize everyone’s needs, instead of focusing primarily on the high school.

Stakeholders also sought more clarity on how the state’s historic building code could be used to reduce the cost of renovating the buildings. And Cambra recommended the district get a legal opinion on whether its headquarters would need to meet the same seismic safety standards as classrooms if it were returned to the Alameda High campus.

Kahn credited Cambra and co-facilitator Alice Lai-Bitker with bringing community members together around the future of Historic Alameda High. Cambra said there was a $50 million difference in different parties’ cost estimates for fixing the 87-year-old buildings.

“Alameda High School has been like the third rail in this community for several years. And yet we sat together and it was almost like consensus,” Kahn said.

She said it’s clear the community wants the buildings saved and returned to school use; now the board needs to figure out whether they’ll pay to fix Historic Alameda High and other needy schools.

“The question raised was, are we going to stand behind this and raise the money to do not just this building, but others in community? I think this was a first step going in that direction,” she said.