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Residents RISE to support CUSD facilities bond

A group of residents has banded together, ready to go to bat for a $58 million school facilities bond measure that will go before Claremont voters this November. Every advocacy organization needs an acronym and they’ve come up with a catchy one, RISE—Renew Infrastructure and Sustain Excellence.

It’s a bit close to the wire for a bond campaign, considering the election is less than 11 weeks away. It wasn’t until August 4, however, that the school board officially voted to call for an election within the district.

When the bond received its letter on Monday, Proposition G, the organization hit the ground running. “We’re starting late, but we’re motivated and optimistic,” RISE chair Richard Fass said.

RISE is comprised of a seven-member steering committee, virtually all parents with students in the district: Kathy Archer, Richard Chute, Mr. Fass, John Heitkemper, Jennifer Rachford, Scott Smith and Amy Weiler.

RISE has four honorary chairs, including former CUSD Superintendent Richard Kirkendall, Claremont Club CEO Mike Alpert, former school board member Marilee Scaff and 2016 CHS graduate and US Presidential Scholar Diana Chao.

“I had conversations with all of them and it was really heartening to me. It gave me courage,” Mr. Fass said.

The bond boosters have embarked on a social media campaign, launching the Claremont RISE page on Facebook. They also plan to host forums and coffees, speak to local organizations, send out mailers and submit letters and viewpoints to the COURIER.

It’s a lot of work, but the timing is right for Mr. Fass, who on June 30 retired from his post as vice president for planning at Pomona College, after 47 years at the school. “Personally, I would have been committed to the bond either way, but all of a sudden I can actually do something like this,” he said.

 

Bond will cover many projects

Measure G encompasses an array of projects, including energy-efficient lighting and HVAC updates throughout the district; roofing at all schools except for CHS, which was the site of a major roofing project last summer; replacement of certain portable classrooms throughout the district with longer-lived modular buildings; upgrades to CHS’ large gym, including the installation of HVAC; upgrades to identified classrooms; an overhaul of the music building as well as the student center/food prep facility at Claremont High; and refurbishment of the pools at El Roble Intermediate and Claremont High School.

The projects on the measure were narrowed down from a larger list of facilities needs at several public forums helmed by Superintendent Jim Elsasser and Assistant Superintendent of Business Services Lisa Shoemaker.

The final list speaks, in particular, to CUSD families. Amy Weiler, mother to a CHS grad and to a freshman and senior at the high school, said air conditioning is a must in the high school gym.

“It’s not just sports. Assemblies are held in there, orientation, back to school night,” Ms. Weiler said. “When you come back to school in September, that gym is really hot.”

For Mr. Chute, the El Roble Pool is an apt symbol for the district’s need to invest in its facilities.

The pool, after a long period of being patched up, finally gave up the ghost a few years ago. It has been drained ever since.

“What happens is pools deteriorate, electrical systems deteriorate, classrooms need to be refurbished,” Mr. Chute said. “It’s a necessary renewal.”

 

Why the bond?

Assistant Superintendent of Business Services Lisa Shoemaker says the state has no funding mechanism in place to allow for the kind of construction and renovations included in Measure G. 

In 2015-2016, 83 percent of CUSD’s revenue came from the state, according to Ms. Shoemaker. That amount includes property tax money. It should be noted that all school districts get the same dollar amount of property tax money, regardless of the average value of property in the area. Based on the amount of property tax money paid by homeowners,  districts with high property values receive less property tax funding from the state, while a community with lower values receives more.

Almost all the rest of the district’s revenue in 2015-2016 came from federal funding for vulnerable populations like students with disabilities, students who are English learners and students who are economically disadvantaged.

In CUSD, 85 percent of state funding goes to staff salaries and benefits, according to Ms. Shoemaker. After the district pays for things like books, supplies, equipment and power with the remaining 15 percent, there is small amount of money that can be used for basic maintenance jobs.

“We do small projects all the time, like painting and carpeting, but we have to do them piecemeal,” Ms. Shoemaker said. 

From time to time, the district undertakes a slightly larger project. For example, CUSD is currently shoring up San Antonio High School’s  bathrooms.

“It’s not the state’s intention to fund capital projects. We could use state money to pay for capital projects, but we’d have to pay staff less,” Ms. Shoemaker said.

CUSD sold two pieces of surplus property in 2012 and 2013, the former district office and the old service center, for $6.2 million and $7 million, respectively. That money, which was used for projects like the renovation of the high school theater and roofing at CHS, is almost gone.

A third piece of surplus property, the site of the former La Puerta Intermediate School, was twice poised to sell for double the price of the other properties, but both buyers backed out after community outcry with respect to their intended projects.

Mr. Chute said CUSD has done a remarkable job of facilities upkeep, considering the dearth of money. “Think of the age of the facilities and how long it’s been since there’s been any substantial work through bond funding,” he said.

 

Why now?

RISE must convince voters the district is badly in need of an infusion of money to update its aging facilities, and that a bond is the only possible source.

It’s a prospect that has proved to be a harder sell in the City of Trees than in most California communities. Of the state’s 1,000 school districts, 860 have put forth a facilities bond measure in the past 15 years and 82 percent of these have passed, according to Mr. Fass.

CUSD joined the fray in 2010, putting forth the $95 million Measure CL school facilities bond. By failing to pass that bond, Claremont has shown itself to be  a bit of an “outlier,” according to Mr. Fass.

One can argue about why Measure CL didn’t pass, with likely factors including the size of the bond and the timing, just two years after the United States was hit with a crippling recession. Nevertheless, Mr. Fass says, “I believe we can and must do better.”

RISE members note that interest rates are historically low. It’s a great time to act, according to Mr. Chute.

“The district has shown prudence. They’ve picked out high-priority projects that are doable in the short term,” he said. “They aren’t lavish. It’s repair and refurbish. The attentiveness to community wishes is what sets bond apart.”

—Sarah Torribio

storribio@claremont-courier.com