Back to the well

With past bond proceeds long gone, school officials say they need millions more to finish campus repairs

By Andre Coleman 07/10/2008

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As Pasadena Unified School District Superintendent Edwin Diaz candidly admitted, “Mistakes were made” in the administration of funds from the last time local school officials asked property owners to help fund public education with a $240 million bond, Measure Y, in 1997.

But even though all that money is long gone — though nearly two decades of payments for it remains — Diaz said that is no reason to forestall asking property owners to once again help out needy schools by voting for another 30-year bond measure, this time for $350 million.

And Board of Education member Renatta Cooper agrees. Due to a death in her family, Cooper was out of the state last week when her board colleagues voted 5-1, with Esteban Lizardo dissenting, to place a bond measure on the November general election ballot.

“I know that there were some issues with how money from Measure Y was spent,” Cooper said. “But I do think in Pasadena there is a desire to have public schools we can be proud of, and if that is the case, we will have to pay for it.”

Lizardo, however, was just as adamantly against the measure Tuesday as when he voted against it last week.

“I have strong concerns that the community is not confident enough in our financial management to embrace this bond and I wish we were demonstrating more financial management to increase the public’s confidence,” Lizardo said.

The idea of asking for some kind of tax to bail out public schools surfaced in a 2006 memo from political consultant Fred Register to then-Superintendent Percy Clark. Register advised waiting two more years, and then going for a parcel tax or a bond after the community was united behind a clear plan formulated for how the money would be used. If that happened, a special election could be called, where voter turnout would be low, consisting mostly of those with vested interests in the outcome. If that support wasn’t there, it would be best to piggyback on the general election, where voter turnout would be much higher, Register wrote.

So far, there are no specific projects prioritized for repairs with the $350 million bond funds. If approved, the bond would raise annual taxes by $50 for each $100,000 of the assessed value of Pasadena, Altadena and Sierra Madre homes.

The $240 million from 1997’s Measure Y was earmarked to complete facility upgrades through 2012. However, rising construction costs in the late 1990s forced the district to speed up repairs, resulting in more than 18 contractors working on several separate projects. The increased pace made it harder for the district to manage the projects, and in the end, school officials simply ran out of money.

“I don’t think Measure Y failed,” said former Board member Bill Bibbiani. “Had they waited with the rising construction cost, they would not have been able to finish any of them. Most of the schools were completed. They ran out of money because it was never enough money in the first place.”

Board of Education President Tom Selinske said steps are being taken to ensure mistakes made with Measure Y funds are not repeated. One such idea is the formation of a special bond oversight committee on which Selinske is asking City Council members to serve.

“My hope would be that we would also have broad representation from the business community, parents and citizens at large that may have expertise in construction projects such as this,” Selinske said.

In 2000, California voters approved Proposition 39, which lowered the vote requirement for general obligation bonds from two-thirds to 55 percent, put a cap on the tax rate of those bonds and required detailed project lists, citizen oversight and annual independent audits by school districts using those funds.

Although officials have not outlined detailed plans just yet, the $350 million bond proceeds would be used to update fire safety, plumbing, electrical and air conditioning systems; make seismic upgrades and repairs to leaky roofs, cracked walls and floors; and upgrade campuses to meet student needs in technology, libraries, science labs and cafeterias.

“Most PUSD schools are more than 50 years old and in poor condition,” said Diaz. “As we move forward with initiatives to accelerate student achievement, we must invest in campus facilities that keep students safe, promote learning and serve as centers of our community.” 


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