MPUSD schools need at least $60 million in repairs and a successful bond issue.
Wednesday, November 22, 2000
When a 200-square-foot section of roof crashed down on the heads of some Monterey High School students in March of 1999, injuring two of them, Monterey Peninsula Unified School District officials could no longer ignore the grim reality: The high school''s physical structure was desperately wanting for attention.
It still is. According to initial estimates, $60 million is needed to complete bare-bones repairs and upgrades on all of the district''s 24 aging schools. Monterey High alone begs for $9 million in upgrades. Seaside High needs $7 million. The needs range from the cosmetic, such as landscaping and new carpet, to the vital, such as fire alarms and bathroom repairs.
It gets worse. Currently an outside consultant is preparing a formal assessment of essential school modernization. That report is expected to be completed by next week, and Ray Bickel, the district''s director of maintenance and facilities, guesses it could identify upwards of $80 million worth or more of needed improvements.
It''s easy to blame dilapidated school facilities on the district''s financial flub--in October 1998, a report revealed that the district was deficit-spending by more than $6 million, and later estimates pushed that figure to around $9 million. However, Bickel says the needed repairs are less a function of deferred maintenance than the age of the schools, some of which date back to the 1920s. Matter of fact, when he came to the district five years ago, Bickel says he was impressed by how well maintained the schools were. "Operationally, they were in good shape," he says, "but it''s uncommon to have facilities the age of ours."
So what''s being done? The district is spending $354,000 of its own money plus another $1.5 million in state emergency maintenance funds to re-roof Monterey High. And the district is eligible for another $46 million in state funding for school modernization, $6.8 million of which they''ll get up front to cover soft costs such as fees for surveying and architectural design. The sale of surplus district properties may also provide some money for facility improvements. In a report to the school board, the district advisory committee has recommended the sale of a 10-acre plot in Hidden Hills and of basketball courts in Seaside, and the trade or sale of a 50-acre parcel in Tarpy Flats. The school board has not yet made a decision to sell any of the property.
For the rest, the district will look to the voters. A school bond steering committee has been meeting for two months and is gearing up to take a proposal before the school board early next month, Bickel says. If all goes well, a school bond could go before voters next November. Now that state Proposition 39 has passed, lowering the approval threshold for school bonds from a two-thirds majority to 55 percent, the district''s chances of passing a bond look much brighter than they did before Election Day. Under the two-thirds rule and given the controversy surrounding the school board for the past two years, a future MPUSD bond was in grave danger of failing. (Neighboring Salinas Union High School District failed to pass a bond three times in a row.) It''s been more than 30 years since MPUSD put a bond before voters.
Both law and voter attitudes limit the amount of a bond issue. By state law, a bond cannot exceed $60 per $100,000 of assessed home values per year. Based on values assessed two years ago, the district could legally float a bond up to $45 million. But a basic distrust of the district''s ability to handle its finances could be a more limiting factor--realistically, the community probably wouldn''t pass a bond that hefty. And Bickel says the district is confident that a successful bond won''t be enough to fund the district''s entire wish list.
"The crucial thing is we know there is not going to be enough money; it''s virtually impossible for us to float a bond big enough to fix everything," he says. "The board is going to have to prioritize.
Bickel says the district will need to survey the community to measure voter attitude, and he''s cautiously optimistic that the community will step up to the plate and pass a bond in some amount. "We think that we''re starting to build our confidence level," he says.