The $158 Million Band-aid
Monterey Peninsula's schools are dying a death of a thousand cuts, and money isn't the only problem.
Thursday, February 21, 2002
A plastic ballpoint pen is a stout enough tool to pull apart the library roof at Marina''s Los Arboles Middle School. Stick a Bic in the fascia board above the side door and you can pry out rotten wood chunks. Up on the roofs of the various low-slung, nondescript, government-issue classroom buildings, it looks as if someone''s been scratching with a big toothy rake and leaving behind piles of chewed up tile. There are loose bits of roof scattered in bunches, which whip off when a stiff wind blows.
The rotten roofs are just the most blatant and expensive signs of neglect. Other problems are more of a hassle. There''s only one working outdoor water fountain on the Los Arboles campus. One just dribbles into a puddle on the ground and the third still has all its hardware, but it''s been pried out of the cement pedestal. The damp, dented bathrooms are as bad as what you''d find at a derelict gas station. Some 722 children attend Los Arboles, and from the looks of it, no one gives a damn about them.
Or course their parents care, and their teachers care. The administrators care and the school district officials care. Somewhere, though, the care got unplugged, maybe somewhere in the dreary halls and offices of Monterey Peninsula Unified School District (MPUSD) on Pacific Street in Monterey.
If the MPUSD were a ship, it''d be a ship you''d try to get off as fast as you could. Not too long ago it was a model public school system, flush with ample government funding. It seemed to fit the relative wealth of the Peninsula. It had extra programs for the bright, the artistic and the challenged, for the athletic and the disabled. Today the MPUSD is so short on cash it''s about to get rid of its sports teams and music instruction. Librarians will be exiled en masse, teachers cast off in droves and more kids packed into each classroom.
Some say the school system just needs to get a grip and hunker down like everyone else, like Corporate America does in lean times. But others point out that these are some of the most desirable communities in the nation, in a state with an economy stronger than most countries. This isn''t Corporate America. These are schoolchildren. What the hell went wrong?
Ask any insider what went wrong and that person will point right to the skeletal remains of Fort Ord.
When the 7th Infantry Division decamped in 1994, it left behind more than buried hand grenades and lead-paint-encrusted barracks. It left behind a school district of camp followers that had grown accustomed to soldiers'' children--3,400 of them at last count--and the $23 million in both state and federal dollars they brought along. The MPUSD took that money for granted, and when the Army bugged out, the district needed to make major cuts from its roughly $80 million budget.
Except it didn''t cut. No one wanted to deprive the children, and understandably so.
Through the ''90s, district finance manager Pat Malone slid budget money around well enough to keep everyone happy and unsuspecting. When he fell off a roof and died in 1999, a gaping $6 million wound was discovered in the district''s books.
Despite $5 million in budget-slashing two years ago, the district has to cut millions more now, not only because of past sins, but because of gloomy forecasts. In addition to the now-AWOL Army brats, enrollment in the MPUSD continues to drop--from 18,000 in 1971 to 11,950 today. Already this year nearly 500 kids who were here in September are gone, and because of the way public schools are funded in California, at $4,500 per body, that means a couple million dollars are gone too.
This spring, the MPUSD is the educational equivalent of a leaking, rusty ship stuck in tight straits blaring out a desperate SOS. The helm is in uncertain hands, as the pinch-hitting superintendent, a veteran administrator named Bob Infelise, prepares to retire. The District''s Board of Trustees has four rookies out of seven members. There''s still a gaping hole in the budget, and the buildings--which average 49 years old--are falling apart.
While it prepares to cut $6.3 million in teachers, programs and probably four entire schools, the District is asking local taxpayers to pass a $158 million bond on March 5. The money gathered through Measure A, as it''s called on the ballot, is solely for school repair and rehabilitation. None is to go to operations or administration. It''s all earmarked to make the roofs at Los Arboles ballpoint-proof and to fix similar problems from Monterey to Marina.
While the state of California funds public education in the Monterey district with the per-pupil payment--known in bureaucratese as the ADA or Average Daily Attendance--the state doesn''t build schools. For the MPUSD to build a school, or in this case repair 24 schools, it has to get a bond passed by the voting public. A school bond is borrowed money that''s then paid back through property taxes, on top of what''s already directed to the school district.
The $158 million would be spread among property owners within the school district, who will pay an extra $60 per year per $100,000 of assessed value. Renters might see an increase in their monthly payments.
The bond is historic in these parts. The most recent school construction bond was passed in 1963. According to all sources, one hasn''t even been attempted since.
The fact that California schools are in notoriously bad condition is often blamed on Proposition 13, which passed in 1978 and severely limits property tax increases. Because of Prop 13, school districts have had trouble raising money to pay for programs that are mandated by the state.
For example, the $3 million spent on special education in MPUSD cannot be reduced in the current round of cuts, while the accelerated learning program for gifted children, known as GATE, will be slashed because it''s not mandated.
One thing working in Measure A''s favor is Proposition 39, which lowered the required majority to pass a school bond from 66 percent to 55 percent. It passed in 2000, and since then, billions of dollars'' worth of bonds have passed statewide.
Last year, California voters in 52 districts passed $4.69 billion in school bonds in communities from Fresno (which passed separate bonds of $199 million and $79 million) to Riverside (which passed a $430 million bond) to Marin (which passed bonds of $107 million and $38 million).
The MPUSD bond of $158 million represents the estimated repair costs needed at all 24 district schools, plus $40 million for a high school in Marina. It might not be so big if there weren''t so many sites in need of help, or if just one school needed to be built. The needs assessment for the school repair project, which includes everything from roofs to light fixtures to ventilation systems to fire alarms, is 3,330 pages long.
On a recent Friday afternoon. four men involved in the bond issue met in the board room at MPUSD headquarters down the hill from Monterey High. The district offices are housed in a former elementary school built in the ''20s which hasn''t aged well. It is one of those spaces where everything seems off. Go into the bathroom at the end of one hall and there''s a pile of boxes of old files that might or might not be important, a toilet in one corner and a janitor''s closet in another. But the board room is sunny on the afternoon of Feb. 8, and Superintendent Infelise is meeting with the bond committee--made up of Steve Vagnini, the county assessor candidate who leads the citizen''s group pushing the bond; Bob Rice, president of the Monterey Peninsula Chamber of Commerce; and Sam Karas, former county supervisor and school trustee.
While the room is sunny, the mood is not. These guys are in a pickle.
"We''re all to blame," Rice says when asked how things got so bad. He says that in past years, whenever the notion of a school bond arose, it was kiboshed.
"Someone always says, ''This isn''t the time,''" says Rice.
Now it almost seems too late. Because things are such a mess, and because of the budget shortfall, some have questioned whether the district can be trusted with $158 million.
The four are preparing to present a Citizens'' Oversight Committee to the school board. It''s made up of trusted community figures who will pre-approve every spending decision for bond money. The purpose is to make clear to the public that an administration with accountability problems will not hold the purse strings. As a group, they''re well aware of the school conditions.
Vagnini''s daughter attends Olson Elementary in Marina. She tells him the bathrooms are so bad she and her friends won''t use them. He says he knows of one girl who got a urinary tract infection from holding it in all day. (Dr. Robert Miller, the Olson principal, says no parents have complained to him.)
"As a parent I started seeing things that made me want to cry," Vagnini says.
Rice, who is wired into the business climate of the Peninsula due to his position at the Chamber, says real estate agents face a hard sell when prospective buyers see where their kids would attend school.
"We do not have the reputation," he says. "Look at the buildings we''ve got."
Karas has been sitting at the far end of the conference table with his head in his hands. He''s emphatic that "not one cent" of bond money will be spent on school operations, though it''s clear that wouldn''t hurt.
"The last thing people want to spend money on is education," Karas says. "I don''t know why, but it''s true."
The case against the $158 million school bond is being made forcefully by Rick Heuer. A marketing executive and neighborhood activist in the tussle against a new movie megaplex in the Del Monte Center, Heuer is now mobilizing against the bond. He has formed the "Committee Against the Out of Control School Bond Measure A." Heuer says the bond is just too big--that the district has asked for the maximum instead of the minimum.
"The question isn''t whether or not the schools need to be fixed but the size of the bond," he says. "There''s major work that needs to be done to a lot of schools, but you don''t need $158 million to do it."
Heuer lives in the district and has his business, Hospitality Marketing Associates, in the district. He has two children, but they attend private school.
Heuer says he''s concerned because people like one of his business employees--a single mother living in Seaside--will be hurt if the bond passes.
"Her rent goes up with this," he says.
His own taxes go up, too, on his home and business properties--and a lot more than her rent.
He claims to have several hundred adherents and has distributed flyers to try to convince citizens to vote against the bond. He complains that the money is being spent in the wrong places, such as on consulting services and on schools that will be closed.
Heuer says he would vote for a $50 million bond.
"I''ve told the superintendent I''d campaign for a smaller bond," he says.
Comparing notes with Heuer is Ron Pasquinelli. Since 1978, he has been president of the Monterey Taxpayers Association, a group has existed since 1963. He has lived in Monterey since 1970, where he runs an investment firm.
He counts his membership at about 750 people between Big Sur, Pebble Beach, Monterey, Prundedale and San Ardo.
He has no children and was not able to provide examples of anyone in his organization who has children in the school system.
Although Pasquinelli says members of his group have not attended any school district meetings in "a number of years," because it has become too "frustrating," the group has sent out a direct mail flyer to Monterey residents urging them to vote against Measure A.
The flyer states that although the association supports a "first class education" for area students, "the grand- children of students in our high schools today will still be paying for those bonds in 2050. That will be many years after the roofs and other proposed repairs have passed their useful lives."
One of Pasquinelli''s main complaints is that a district with such a poor fiduciary record cannot manage such a large amount of public money.
"This is the same group of administrators that let these schools fall apart," he says. "This is the same group of administrators that can''t count. To trust these guys with a blank check for $158 million is what we object to. [The district should] start with a smaller amount and prove to the voters they can handle it."
The district has, in fact, major budget problems and the committee formed to cut $6.3 million from has grown in the last few months to 24 people. One participant called the swelling body a "bureaucratic nightmare."
Furthermore, during a recent conversion of the district''s accounting system, another $2.1 million has vanished.
"It''s somewhere," says school trustee and 1987 Seaside High graduate Shanda LeBoeuf.
The stories of wretched school facilities are easy to find in the MPUSD. The 1999 ceiling-falling-on-a-kid''s-head-incident at Monterey High is an infamous example. Although the ceiling in that particular classroom has been fixed, the 75-year-old high school needs new guts, like wiring, heating and ventilation. Aged boilers provide blasts of heat, then spells of cold. The bathrooms are in a state of abuse. This summer, volunteer parents painted the whole campus. The buildings are said to be sound, but Ray Bickel, who ran the maintenance department for six years and now runs the district-wide rehab project for a consulting firm, says there are some things that just can''t be patched up any further. Some wooden window frames at Monterey are simply shot.
"The windows are rotting out of the building," he says. "There''s no maintenance for that."
Monterey High Principal Dan Albert graduated from the school in 1974. His father, the mayor, was a student and athlete at Monterey and taught there for 35 years.
Among other things, Albert the younger is putting together a project to fix the playing fields and install a proper track with local volunteering companies. Right now the fields, originally a New Deal work project, are lumpy and skidded out. Kids running laps on the dirt track have to swing wide in one corner to avoid standing water.
Albert is on the Budget Committee that has to slice $6.3 million this week so the Board can make its final decision on Feb. 25. By state law, terminated teachers must be notified by March 15.
At one time, Monterey High School was what an American high school should be, and more. Besides an indoor pool, it has a separate building for the band, but because of the looming cuts, music is one extracurricular that will likely be axed. Sports, yearbook and various clubs are also on the slash list.
Whether or not the bond passes, one thing is true. Students in the MPUSD may go to the same schools their parents went to, but they are not going to the same schools their parents went to.
"Monterey High School has a lot of pride. We try hard to maintain what we have," Albert says as he stands above the fields in the sun, over a view of the Bay. "It would be nice to see the school the way it was 40 years ago."