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School bond forum addresses CUSD needs, community perceptions

On Tuesday evening, Claremont Unified School District Superintendent Jim Elsasser and Assistant Superintendent of Business Services Lisa Shoemaker presided over an hour and a half meeting at El Roble Intermediate School.

Their aim was to educate the community about CUSD’s considerable facilities needs and gather input on what kind of school bond measure—if any—the community might support on the November ballot.

Should the district pursue a bond measure, there are some considerable hurdles to negotiate. One is a busy ballot. While it’s likely to bring out more voters, particularly with a concurrent presidential election, it may also contain another local initiative.

The city has not yet determined if it will present a bond measure to fund construction of a new Claremont police station in November. If they do, however, it is unknown if voters would support two facilities measures, with the tab for each picked up by local property owners.

The district conducted a needs assessment during the spring and summer of 2015, at which time $111 million in facilities projects were identified. Since then, the list has been refined to reflect the highest priorities at a total of $58 million.

Over the last several weeks, the district has reached out to community members and CUSD stakeholders in what, after a couple meetings next week, will amount to 38 presentations. The aim has been to find out which of the projects on the list have the most community support.

Three projects are non-negotiable, as they represent the district’s priorities of health and safety as well as sustainability. One of these is roofing at every school site except CHS, which was the site of a major roofing upgrade this summer. Also included is an upgrade of the district’s outdated HVAC systems and electrical upgrades.

The latter two projects are considered high-priority because they carry such a good return on investment. Great strides have been made in recent years with the efficiency of air conditioning and lighting. By upgrading to newer equipment, the district expects to see its utility bills significantly decreased.

Other projects on the list include replacing portable classrooms with longer-lived modular buildings at elementary schools and El Roble; upgrades to classrooms and office and staff workrooms at elementary schools; the refurbishment of the El Roble pool, which is currently drained, as well as the school’s locker rooms; replacing portable restrooms at San Antonio High School; upgrades to CHS’ large gym, including the installation of HVAC; and an overhaul of the music building as well as the student center/food prep facility at Claremont High.

Attendees at this and previous meetings were asked to show their support level for these projects through “spending” six yellow stickers by placing them on a chart listing eight projects. Next up, they were asked to spend two red dots, picking the two facilities projects they deem most important.

“It’s kind of a Sophie’s choice,” Mr. Elsasser quipped.  

Meeting attendees were also asked to place stickers on another chart, indicating the size of the bond they would support: $25 million, $35 million, $45 million or $58 million. A chart was available for perusal, showing how much residents would have tacked on to their property taxes based on the assessed value of their homes and on the amount of the bond.

Another challenge is that CUSD will have to answer pointed questions from residents who still have a bad taste in their mouths with regard to Measure Y’s failure to accomplish the updates the bond was sold as funding.

Passed in 2000, Measure Y allowed CUSD to issue $48,910,000 in bonds to upgrade CUSD facilities. The money only ended up funding a small fraction of the projects its proponents had hoped for.

Claremont resident Betty Crocker, who noted she is on the police bond ad hoc committee, spoke to this issue.

Ms. Crocker said she and fellow residents got a sense that Measure Y funds had been mismanaged and asserted there needs to be an oversight committee to prove bond money is spent efficiently.

Ms. Shoemaker said what happened with Measure Y was not about mismanagement, but what the district called “the perfect storm” when it comes to marketplace trends. When CUSD first began seeking bids for Measure Y projects, contractors were hungry for work and, on average, presented bids that were 85 percent of what the district had budgeted.

That all changed within a couple years of the measure’s passage, according to Ms. Shoemaker.

The state had issued many facilities bonds for California schools in the previous months, and many districts were approaching their deadlines to spend the funds at the same time. Contractors knew schools were desperate and that, as a result, they could drive up their prices, Ms. Shoemaker explained. Suddenly, the district had to beg companies to bid on CUSD projects. When they did respond, their bids were as high as 185 percent of what had been previously budgeted.

Ms. Crocker emphasized that voters still crave reassurance. “The bottom line is we have to have some surety moving forward,” she said.

Ms. Shoemaker said she appreciates that voters want to know their money is well spent. CUSD will build in a cost escalator to each project and is being very conservative in all of its estimates, she said. They will also, as in the case of Measure Y, employ a bond oversight committee that is strategic and transparent.

However, given that CUSD doesn’t control the market, she said the district can’t promise voters that nothing will occur to up the prices of the projects it undertakes.

“I wish I had a crystal ball,” she said. 

Perhaps the greatest challenge to the district is getting the community involved and interested in the passage of a school bond. About 25 community members showed up to Tuesday’s meeting, while a meeting held at Claremont High School last month drew about 20 attendees.

Should the district go ahead with a school bond measure, it will certainly engage in a social media campaign, including making a video or videos on the bond measure, Mr. Elsasser said. In the meantime, you can find the information provided during the community engagement forums on the CUSD website.  

The school board will hold a workshop, open to the public, on June 2 in the Richard S. Kirkendall Education Center where they review all the community feedback. Then, at the June 16 school board meeting, the board will vote on a resolution as to whether or not to float a bond measure in November. 

—Sarah Torribio

storribio@claremont-courier.com