Wednesday, July 29, 2009 | Drama boosters at Patrick Henry High School want a real auditorium to replace the "cafetorium" that doubles as an eating space. Two neighboring middle schools want a new field for baseball, softball and soccer.
And the principal of Mann Middle School bemoans the warped hallways and cracked walls of an aging building with shoddy foundations, hoping for a wholesale overhaul of the City Heights school that exceeds the less expensive renovations originally planned.
None of it is free. Nor was it listed among the hundreds of projects in Proposition S, the $2.1 billion facilities bond to revamp San Diego Unified schools that voters approved last November. If the school board opts to add more projects, it could ultimately hurt the bottom line for the whole budget, not just the dollars that pay for buildings and repairs.
Going forward with the added projects could have a domino effect: If the school board gives the green light to the projects, it will likely pay for them out of a special pool of facilities dollars that are already devoted to other things. The bulk of the money is budgeted for major repairs and maintenance, the unglamorous work that is often delayed by government agencies when money is tight.
That means that the school district will have to pare back on other things that are being paid for with those special dollars — or find other ways to pay for them. One major possibility is spending more money from the general fund to cover the costs of maintaining schools, instead of using the facilities funds to cover those costs. The repair money now comes from state facilities funding that was given to San Diego Unified as matching funds during the last bond, Proposition MM, and is slowly running out.
The county Taxpayers Association has long urged the school district to do that, making sure that ordinary repairs are covered by its ordinary funds, instead of relying on onetime funds for those costs. But dipping into the general fund to pay for repairs also means an added, unwelcome hit on the same funds that pay for teachers and test tubes. San Diego Unified is already planning to make more than $68 million in cuts to balance its budget next school year, and fiscal woes are expected to persist into the future.
The problem may not surface immediately: The facilities funds may still last for years before the school district is forced to pay for repairs from the general fund, a change that San Diego Unified would ultimately have to make anyhow as the dollars dry up. But tapping the facilities dollars will hasten that change. And though California will give San Diego Unified some matching dollars for its new bond, it expects to receive less than last time because fewer of its projects are new buildings, which draw more state funding. Staffers are leery of depending on those future funds in light of the state budget crisis.
"If they're going to try to move this to the general fund, something is going to have to be moved out, not spent," said Chief Financial Officer James Masias, adding, "You and I know we don't have $10 million extra in our general fund."
Staffers said it is also possible that the school district could find savings in other bond projects that would free up bond money to be spent on the new plans. Superintendent Terry Grier mentioned that two schools planned for the Miramar area may not be necessary if enrollment shifts. And state facilities money is still dedicated to the future Salk Elementary School in Mira Mesa, which has been repeatedly delayed because of endangered shrimp found on the site and is now wrapped up in legal issues with the city. If the school district backs away from the idea, those funds would be freed for other uses.
Though changes are par for the course, bond overseers are nervous about "project creep" — the gradual expansion of building projects beyond original plans. Even the Taxpayers Association, which has pushed for the school district to pay for repairs from its general fund, seems uneasy with the idea now.
"My warning is that before they start to add things on, they really need to look at each situation carefully. It's very easy for people to say, 'Well, since you're going to improve this facility, why don't you just add this on?'" said Lani Lutar, president of the group.
Some of the projects are already moving forward: The school board just approved an estimated $13.5 million plan to add new classrooms to Millennial Tech Middle School, which was not included in the bond, and to create athletic fields on the campus that Millennial Tech shares with neighboring Gompers Charter Middle School, which is expanding into a high school and wants facilities to match. Stuart Markey, who oversees the bond, said staffers are still determining how it will be budgeted, but the facilities funds are a likely source of money.
"Circumstances change," Markey said. "When we built the bond there wasn't a high school at Gompers."
The estimated costs of the other projects total more than $99 million, plus the potential and thus far unknown costs of consolidating two City Heights schools, Wilson Middle and Central Elementary, on a single site. They include a wholesale overhaul of Mann Middle School and Crawford High School, an auditorium for Henry High, and a dozen facilities for career technical education, such as school buildings designed for screen printing or biotechnology, that could be partially funded by state grants that were not available when the bond was designed.
Staffers want direction from the board on whether to move forward with the projects, which have cropped up from communities or been raised by board members. But several board members balked at the idea of approving projects based on community outcry before studying the needs of all schools, which will happen later this year. The new board has also focused heavily on the idea of neighborhood schooling, which would entail less busing and more facilities located in southern areas, where more students live. That could impact which buildings get funding and priority.
Adding new projects one by one also raises worries about equity. Henry High, for instance, is not the only high school that lacks an auditorium, though its community has rallied behind it.
"I just don't understand why we're singling this project out today," said school board member Richard Barrera before voting against it. "It's a fine project. But we've got a lot of fine projects."
The funding debate also ties into longstanding concerns about how San Diego Unified pays for repairs. Taxpayer advocates were unhappy last year with how much of its own money the school district had devoted to overdue repairs during the last bond, jeopardizing their support for Proposition S.
Bond proponents won them over by arguing that the school district had kept its promise to fund repairs, and had actually spent more than it promised, by using the state facilities funds. Tapping those dollars freed the school district to pare back on its general fund spending during a budget crisis. It spent none of its own money on major repairs and maintenance between 2004 and 2008, according to documents prepared by bond advocates to convince the county Taxpayers Association, and is paying for most of its $58.9 million repair and maintenance budget using $50.7 million from the state facilities fund.
Now, as another budget crisis looms, school districts across California have gotten more freedom to reduce what they spend on repairs in light of the budget crisis. Districts normally must put a dollar amount that equals 3 percent of their general fund budget towards repairs and maintenance, but that requirement has been relaxed for school districts for the next few years, as long as they keep their buildings in good repair, Masias said. Balancing those mundane, annual needs with pleas for new and better facilities from parents and educators will be an ongoing test for San Diego Unified and its budget.
"Taking money from next year isn't a solution," said John Gordon, a member of the bond oversight committee. "I don't think we can count on that now."
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