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With Tax Hikes, SD Schools Put Stadium Spending Above Classrooms

There’s a crack in the wall at Hoover High that $923 million hasn’t been able to fix.

It’s not a big crMoving the Goalposts [1]ack. Visit the school in City Heights, and you won’t even see it. That doesn’t mean it hasn’t been problem – especially when it rains.

Rainwater pools onto a flat surface near the business education building. With nowhere to drain, it seeps into the ceiling tiles until they bulge with water, and give way to the classroom below.

“We usually just stick a broom through it and catch the water in a bucket,” said Michael Shefcik, Hoover’s head custodian. “It’s OK – until the next time it rains. Then we go out and do it again.”

He’s not exaggerating. This is during a rainstorm in 2014 in Room 1005 at Hoover High School.

Photo by Michael Shefcik, head custodian, Hoover High School [2]
Photo by Michael Shefcik, head custodian, Hoover High School

Shefcik said an internal beam is now so rotten he can poke his finger through it.

It’s not a new problem. Hoover principal Joe Austin said the leak has been an issue since at least 2008, when the voters approved Proposition S, a $2.1 billion construction bond to pay for school repairs. At that time, Austin said school leaders were optimistic some of those funds could fix the leak. That didn’t happen.

Hopes were renewed in 2012 that Hoover could deal with its structural problems. That year voters approved another $2.8 billion construction bond and property tax increase – Proposition Z. But the crack still waits to be fixed.

That doesn’t mean Hoover hasn’t seen any bond money. On the school’s north side sits a new football stadium with a vibrant-green turf field. Stadium and upgrades to other athletic facilities here ran the district $15.1 million.

High-powered field lights were erected – which quickly became a lightning rod [3] for complaints about the district’s bond spending. Bleachers were replaced, and a new press box built. It spent another $2 million on a synthetic turf field and a new running track.

District officials told Austin they will get to the leaky ceiling, but the school will have to wait for its “whole site modernization,” a term for projects that bring schools up to code, modernize classrooms, and repair major items all at once. But that won’t happen until 2017, at the earliest.

Leading up to whole site modernizations, district staff work with school leaders to create a plan for what their schools need most. Austin said the plan at Hoover is shovel-ready. But Hoover leaders needed to tweak their plan recently, based on what’s most needed and cost-efficient. And Austin said those revisions could push the school’s modernization back even further, to 2019.

By that measure, it will take the district 10 years to fix a crack.

The crack isn’t the only thing at Hoover that needs attention. The doors and windows in an 85-year-old structure called the 1200-building are so old that custodians have trouble securing it from break-ins at night, which Shefcik said has happened.

The air can be stifling. Sunlight pours in the east-facing windows until Eliza Getch, who leads a program [4] for students who recently arrived from other countries, has to ask librarians if her class can take up some space in the air-conditioned library.

“The district says we’re not in one of the hottest (parts of town). But try saying that when you’re in the 1200 building at noon and it’s 110 degrees,” Austin said.

The district says major repairs at Hoover are delayed until they can build new facilities for classrooms. That way kids won’t be displaced when those major repairs get underway.

It’s not just at Hoover where athletic facilities have been prioritized over repairs.

At Mission Bay High, the new $11 million stadium and athletic fields might gleam, but the hallways and classrooms are drab and vintage. Principal Ernest Remillard said completing the stadium has been such a focal point that the school hasn’t starting planning its whole site modernization, when classrooms are scheduled to be retrofitted and major building systems replaced. [5]

Mission Bay High classroom. Photo by Dustin Michelson [6]
Mission Bay High classroom. Photo by Dustin Michelson

A specific price-tag hasn’t been hung on the stadium and field upgrades planned for Crawford High, but the district says it will cost more than $10 million. Others we spoke to put the cost at potentially $18 million. That’s scheduled [7] to happen before the bathrooms are renovated, fire alarm system replaced and classrooms get better ventilation.

Since 2009, the district has spent $107 million on stadiums and athletic facilities like weight rooms, scoreboards, tracks and fields. That’s 43 percent of what the district has spent modernizing schools, which includes repairs, bringing buildings up to code, and adding classrooms.

Yet, of the roughly 140 whole site modernization projects the district lists [8], only six are listed as complete. Work on the remaining projects are scheduled to begin sometime between now and 2027.

Here’s a breakdown the district provided of the $923.6 million it’s spent overall from Propositions S and Z:

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District officials point out that they have completed some work on every campus, even if whole site modernizations aren’t done. But that work includes stadiums.

The bottom line at Hoover is that athletic facilities have gone first while repairs wait in queue. And Hoover isn’t alone.

How They Set Priorities

In April, Mission Bay High students celebrated a ribbon cutting at their stadium with streamers and band music and high-pitched revelry. Before the renovations, the football field was pocked with gopher holes. Next year’s football team will play on new synthetic turf.

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Mission Bay High stadium. Photo by Dustin Michelson

 

The district says the big reason for the stadium construction comes down to equity. It’s not fair for some schools to have impressive stadiums and other schools have rundown, dated facilities.

The school board sets the priorities. A master timeline [10] shows which projects need to be completed. Once a year, board members review reports made by district staff about the condition of district facilities, then decide on which ones will be tackled in the next few years.

The board considers the Facilities Condition Index, which are scores assigned to each school based on the condition of the buildings. The higher the score, the worse shape a school is in. In theory, the district would base its timeline primarily off the index, and tackle schools with highest scores first.

But other factors – like political pressure put on the board and available external funding – can bump projects up the list.

An example of this would be the decision to install air conditioning units in 2,000 of the district’s hottest classrooms. This wasn’t a priority in the original plan.

At first, schools were going to have to wait for their planned whole site modernization projects to have AC in their rooms. But based on political pressure he got from constituents, trustee Kevin Beiser successfully pushed to make this happen sooner.

Grants or matching funds could also jump projects up the list. That’s the reason College, Career and Technical Education [11] projects, like the professional broadcast journalism studio at San Diego High [12], were prioritized.

Grant money also factored into the decision to prioritize the i21 initiative [13], which put new technology in classrooms district-wide.

This makes sense. But it doesn’t explain why stadiums and athletic facilities would go first. No grants or matching funds are attached to those projects.

Lee Dulgeroff, the district’s facilities planning and construction officer, says the driving force behind stadium construction is to bring parity to schools across the district. Every student should have a quality school in their neighborhood, and that includes stadiums and playing fields, he said.

Sports are a part of the fabric that keeps kids involved in school, and athletic facilities are about more than sporting events. They’re also a part of physical education classes and serve as assembly spaces for ceremonies and events, Dulgeroff said. So they have to be accessible and compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

“You don’t know who’s going to arrive in a large assembly space,” Dulgeroff said. “It could be somebody’s grandmother, grandfather, mom, dad or a veteran returning home from war.”

The Sexy Factor

Stadiums are prioritized for reasons related to equity and compliance with ADA requirements – and a dash of patriotism.

But equity relates to classrooms and academic facilities, too. So by the district’s reasoning, it would make just as much sense to try to bring classrooms into parity before athletic facilities.

The rush to build stadiums must also be about something else.

Former Trustee Scott Barnett, who helped pass both Propositions S and Z, chalks some of it up to curb appeal.

“The things that people want to prioritize aren’t always the things we need to prioritize,” Barnett said. “It’s about what the parents want and what the politicians want. Look, you can’t do a ribbon-cutting on new plumbing, right? But you can do it on a new stadium.”

Andy Berg, chair of the Independent Citizens Oversight Committee that was appointed to monitor bond projects, echoes the sentiment.

“Repairs aren’t sexy. Stadiums are sexy,” he said. Berg was a major supporter of Proposition Z, which raised property taxes $66 for every $100,000 of property value someone owns in the school district’s boundaries.

Berg compared it to how we feel in our homes: we might need new wiring inside the wall. But if we don’t see the repairs, we don’t feel any better about where we live. On the other hand, if we have new furniture and a plasma TV, we’re prouder to live there.

“If you take the asbestos out of the wall, do kids feel any better about where they go to school? But if they have a new stadium, that means something. Kids feel a connection to their school. They take pride in their surroundings, they feel more comfortable, which leads to better test scores,” Berg said.

Correlating stadiums and test scores may sound like a stretch, but the district has presented evidence to support the claim.

In a 2011 bond-project status update, the district presented findings from a report written by a Virginia Tech researcher [14]: “Researchers have repeatedly found a difference of 5-17 percentile points between achievement of students in poor buildings and students in above-standard buildings, when the socioeconomic status of students is controlled.”

There’s reason to believe better school facilities attract parents, if nothing else. According to a recent district analysis [15], the schools that parents chose for their kids are generally those in better condition.

Of course, remember that Lincoln High opened the 2007 school year with a brand-new $129 million campus. Since then [16], it’s clung to the bottom rung of the district in terms of academics. And despite efforts reboot its program, it’s still under-enrolled by about 1,100 students [17].

Can’t Please Everyone

Explanations aside, taxpayers have questioned the district’s priorities since bond spending began.

Early on, parents and teachers wondered why classrooms were getting new interactive whiteboards [18] before they were air conditioned. Around the same time, the district caught flak [19] for spending on the downtown charter school while ADA improvements to school facilities waited in backlog. More recently, the district’s pools for schools [20]initiative has drawn scrutiny.

It’s like the district can’t win. That’s the way Berg sees it.

“I think you have a lot of people who want to substitute their judgement for the school board’s. That’s fine, but they didn’t run for school board. And the board is going to upset someone no matter what they do,” he said.

Dulgeroff says that critics take a narrow view of the bond spending and zero in on projects that directly affect them.

“They are not looking at the entirety,” Dulgeroff said. “There’s a lot more to the bond program than that one small piece.”

These are all fair points. But the district pitched the bonds as a way to address an urgent public safety concern. It said it needed money to remove asbestos and hazardous materials from schools, but now admits asbestos never really posed a serious threat to student safety [12].

Stadiums were listed on the Proposition ballot lists, but they read more like unglamorous upgrades to make facilities compliant with ADA requirements – not state-of-the-art sports complexes.

ADA improvements have been made. The district just happened to do millions of dollars of additional work on stadiums at the same time.

But the biggest concern for William Ponder, who along with Berg serves on the bond oversight committee, is that the district is spending like it doesn’t realize the money will run out.

“These bonds are not a panacea. They’re not going to solve all the problems. This is money that will end, and there’s no guarantee that all those projects will get done,” Ponder said.

“And if not everything on the list does get done, who’s prioritizing the projects that really do need to be done? If nobody’s doing that, I guess we’ll have to pass another bond. Oh, well.”

Ashly McGlone, Camille Lozano and Tristan Loper contributed to this story.