As the heat turns up on a closing-in deadline to put a $200 million bond on the November ballot, the Morgan Hill Unified School Board discussed Tuesday night how appealing a list of infrastructure updates and veiled technology upgrades will look to voters.
“We need to go out with something that’s going to sell. You can sell concrete, or you can sell a nicely designed concrete bridge. I’m afraid we’re not going to have enough here. This doesn’t sizzle,” said Trustee Bob Benevento, who among the other six board members expressed the most concern about the public’s perception of a project list of infrastructure projects and facility upgrades.
“I can’t get excited about a new roof, a new electrical panel,” Benevento said. “I can get excited about a new chemistry lab,” he added.
The so-called “sizzle” will come with time, other board members argued. For Trustee Shelle Thomas, there is enough sizzle.
“We’re not just taking care of everyday needs, but taking care of the future. Building a strong infrastructure ... that’s the sizzle for me. There’s plenty of sizzle in this,” she countered.
The bottom-line, MHUSD says, is the district’s schools are old and desperately in need of basic infrastructure upgrades. The average age of a school is 36 years old, with Britton Middle School – which was built in 1951 – being the oldest.
The school district conducted a survey of about 400 voters earlier this year and found voters were open to paying a general obligation bond – or money loaned to an agency such as a school district and paid back through taxation – of about $60 per $100,000 of assessed home value. Nearly 60 percent of respondents said they would vote “yes.” That amount would generate up to $195 million. To pass, the bond requires 55 percent of the vote.
Bond revenue would fund classroom technology, water-damaged roofs, deteriorating plumbing, outdated HVAC systems, inadequate electrical circuits, fixing playgrounds, seismic upgrades, fire alarm updates and possibly $23 million in solar investments, among a long list of other “necessities.”
Deputy Superintendent Bonnie Tognazzini pre-empted the conversation with sentiments that dominated the hour-long discussion during the school board’s regular meeting. No vote was taken on the potential bond measure.
“Spending hundreds of millions of dollars that aren’t visual is a hard sell,” Tognazzini said before the board opened the floor for conversation. “These sites are old. They need a lot of infrastructure updates.”
The board will be asked to pass a resolution at its July 24 meeting calling for the bond to be placed on the Nov. 6 ballot.
She said the school district is forced to do this work no matter what, but securing bond money as its resource would leave the general fund alone to pay for salaries (80 percent of the budget), classroom supplies and updating curriculum, for example.
Trustee Peter Mandel, who serves on the bond committee along with Board President Ron Woolf, Trustee Kathy Sullivan and several MHUSD administrators, typified the selling points that the board and staff would need to hone before officially asking the public for their investment. He did point out a professional marketing team would take over those duties down the road and community activism would be up to each board member.
On Tuesday night, the board also passed its $79 million balanced budget on time and approved a three-year contract with the teacher’s union that includes one furlough day in October (saving $200,000), with a second optional furlough day in case the state executes its “trigger” cuts mid-year.
At Gilroy Unified School District, its school board passed a balanced budget that implements 10 furlough days (or a 5 percent pay cut) for teachers and management staff. The days could be restored if Gov. Jerry Brown’s tax extension passes in November, however.
Mandel had myriad examples of how improving infrastructure would benefit student achievement – still vital, just achieved in a round-about way.
“We get general fund relief (if it passes). We update the HVAC system, which would lower utility bills, which would benefit all and the money spent on utility bills could go to curriculum. We have potential to pay off some debt,” he said. “It’s not just a roofing kind of a thing. It gives us a strong balance of making us a leading edge district with technology and looking after some basic needs we have,” Mandel said.
While the wish list is in its early stages – and referred to as “homework” for the school board instead of concrete that’s ready to be presented to the public – it’s a good start, the board agrees, supplemented with the positive results from the community survey.
“This is our priority list,” said Superintendent Wes Smith. “This is not the marketing campaign. We all will be well-advised to entertain some expert marketing opinions. How we market is how we get the sizzle. This (list) isn’t really that,” he said.
Sullivan quipped about the tangibles that are effecting students and teachers: “You can’t successfully teach our kids when there’s a roof over their heads leaking on them. We’ve had roofs leak onto servers and computer equipment. This effects their learning environment,” she said.
Previously MHUSD looked at a bond that would produce about $244 million, but the bond committee scaled back its list to fall into “needs” and “adjusted” columns, or $217 million and $211 million options respectively.
Mandel said it would behoove the board to remind the community about the successes of the 1999 bond and the solar project at Sobrato and Live Oak high schools, which came in under budget.
In 1999, 67 percent of voters passed a $72.5 million bond at $75.10 per $100,000 in assessed value with a 27-year pay back period that ends in 2026. When surveyed voters were asked if they would not raise taxes – but continue the tax rate that was approved in 1999, 64.2 percent said they would “much/somewhat more” support the extension.
Recently, however, voters have not been so kind to the idea of new taxes.
In 2006, Morgan Hill voters defeated a $96 parcel tax with 55.5 percent supporting the measure, shy of the 67 percent needed. The proposed parcel tax was to fund technology, fine arts and athletic programs in MHUSD.
The MHUSD board will meet Tuesday, July 24 at 6 p.m. at the MHUSD headquarters, 15600 Concord Circle.