Too soon, too late or just the right time?
That is the question Pleasanton voters will face when they decide the fate of a $323 million facilities bond measure for Pleasanton Unified School District in the upcoming March 3 primary election.
A little more than three years ago residents passed Measure I1, a $270 million bond measure -- and the community's first in over two decades -- that has since been used to fund pre-construction work for marquee district projects like revitalizing Lydiksen Elementary School (on track to break ground next month), replacing the portables and adding new science labs at Hart Middle and Foothill and Amador Valley High schools (starting next fiscal year) and eventually building a new school for grades 4 and 5 on the Donlon Elementary site.
Most of the work crossed off the Measure I1 project list so far, however, has been understated like adding network infrastructure or security fencing at various campuses, making some locals wonder why or if another bond is needed right now. Approximately $145.5 million remains to be allocated for the Measure I1 projects list.
"Now or never" was the answer that the consultants who were brought in last year to gauge the public's reception to another property tax gave to the Board of Trustees and Superintendent David Haglund.
A sample poll conducted in late summer showed support for a new bond was above the 55% minimum threshold at a lower amount of $150 million (60%-65%) and closer to the number (54%-57%) at a higher amount of $393 million; the consultants predicted this year's presidential race would likely distract voters and suggested acting sooner, prompting the Board of Trustees in November to unanimously place a $323 million measure on the ballot this spring instead.
Labeled on the ballot as Measure M, the initiative has its critics but district officials and a number of PUSD families argue it is needed to help properly maintain, repair and remodel their aging schools, pointing to PUSD sites and amenities like both gymnasiums at Amador that could use an overhaul.
Currently there is an estimated $1.1 billion of identified projects on the district's 2018 Facilities Master Plan, including a proposed career-tech high school or STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) expansion facilities.
Measure M poses this query to voters:
"To upgrade/construct classrooms and facilities to support science, technology, engineering, math, arts/music and accommodate growing student enrollment; improve safety/security systems; replace aging roofs, plumbing/electrical/HVAC systems; and improve access for students with disabilities; shall Pleasanton Unified School District's measure be adopted, authorizing $323,000,000 in bonds at legal rates, raising approximately $21,300,000 annually with rates averaging 4.31¢ per $100 of assessed valuation while bonds are outstanding, with independent oversight, audits, and no money for administrators?"
Should more than 55% of Pleasanton residents check "yes" on the ballot, Measure M will usher in a new tax of $43.10 per $100,000 of assessed value on residential properties in the district and, according to PUSD officials, sustain a similar tax rate when two bond measures from 1988 and 1997 begin to expire in 2022.
A family that owns a home with an assessed value of $500,000 would pay an extra $215.50 in taxes annually, and a house in Pleasanton with an assessed value of $1 million would generate an additional $431 in taxes each year.
An estimated $21.3 million annually would be generated by Measure M.
Just like Measure I1, the projects that could come to fruition under Measure M vary from simpler objectives like adding covered lunch areas and improving pickup and drop-off zones to more ambitious ones like modernizations of entire school buildings.
But unlike Measure I1 in 2016, which cited specific projects down to the school-site level, the Measure M resolution features catch-all phrases to describe types of projects eligible for funding -- such as "modernize, renovate, replace, re-configure, upgrade and/or construct gymnasiums or related facilities," as opposed to directly listing Amador or Foothill gyms as specific projects.
The same goes for specific campus modernizations, though Vintage Hills Elementary was cited by school board members during bond deliberations.
Also, while the final approved project list includes budgeted amounts up to $323 million, there are no cost estimates per project in the ballot measure.
The ballot measure language states that "the final cost of each project will be determined as plans are finalized, construction bids are awarded, and projects are completed," with listed projects being "completed as needed at a particular school or school facility site according to Board-established priorities." It also notes "the Board cannot guarantee that the bonds will provide sufficient funds to allow completion of all listed projects."
Even if funds are available, there's no guarantee that a project on the list will be realized, but Measure M revenue could only be spent on the types of projects on the list.
This summer PUSD wrapped up the second issuance for $90 million of Measure I1 bonds, almost selling out in mere hours. The lightning speed sales and low interest rate were credited to the district's solid credit score, increased assessed values and community stability. As of now, PUSD is ahead of schedule on Measure I1, with the final issuance scheduled for next year.
Senior citizens would not be exempt from Measure M, which is slated to fund a number of big-ticket projects like adding a drama theater at Foothill and, of course, the gyms at Amador, according to Board of Trustees President Steve Maher during a recent tour of several PUSD sites.
"I thought every time I came to Amador that I was coming into an archaic building," Maher, who has 40 years of combined teaching and administration experience at PUSD, told the Weekly about his impression of the large gym when he coached girls basketball 20 years ago.
Not much has changed since then, he said, except that the building has deteriorated even further, and pointed to signs of wear and tear on the walls that he labeled "an embarrassment."
"Personally, a gym is a classroom for me," Maher said. "I think it's an embarrassment; we can't even have a full student body assembly here."
Bryan Gillette, co-chair of the Yes on M campaign, concurred with Maher, adding that he toured the gym in November when it was raining and "thought it would be lousy for the tour, but the weather showed where the leaks are."
The larger gym, which was built in the 1960s, shows its age on exterior doors with splintered areas along the bottom and old wood-paneled walls that have holes in them once occupied by electrical outlets. A deteriorating piece of sound system that appears to be no longer used remains inside on its walls, and the carpet on some is torn.
Both men said features like the chipped concrete steps just outside the smaller gym and the peeling paint on the exterior of both buildings are more of the evidence they think will tip voters in favor of Measure M.
The state of Amador's gyms isn't the only reason Maher is backing Measure M; he said there's outdoor lunch shelters needed at many schools, and troublesome gophers have turned the playfield at Pleasanton Middle into what he called "Gopher City" and might require a turf overhaul.
Foothill also lacks a theater for musicals and stage plays while the one at Amador has enough problems that students regularly use off-site venues like the Firehouse Arts Center in Pleasanton or the Bankhead Theater in Livermore.
The 90-year-old Amador Theater is actually owned by the city of Pleasanton but Gillette said there could be a partnership opportunity to renovate the upper balcony, which has been closed off since last year because of a fire escape issue. The sudden closure increased pressure on the privately funded annual Foothill-Amador joint musical production to sell enough tickets and do more fundraising than usual.
"This is now at the point where we have to do something or who knows when in the future someone comes in and says 'this is unsafe, shut it down,'" Gillette said.
Maher said PUSD could use Measure M to acquire matching funds from the state for some projects and any money saved "could go into other refurbishing."
A "strong economy," "opportunity to leverage state bonds" and overall goal to "maintain continuity and focus on facilities" are also among the top reasons cited by the Yes on M campaign and its supporters for passing another bond tax now.
But former PUSD trustee Kathleen Ruegsegger said district administration has their timing and priorities wrong and, with some major projects still outstanding, that they haven't proven themselves.
"It's too soon; they have not spent the bulk of the $270 million they already have," Ruegsegger said. "With that what they've spent, they've yet to add one square inch of new capacity at a time when over 200 kids are getting sent to other schools. Lydiksen was a bad priority; they should've started with the addition to Donlon."
She said that while buying Macbooks for staff was understandable, the $1 million purchase of 7,000 Chromebooks for students using Measure I1 revenue was unnecessary and mismanaged.
"To just flat out purchase and not figure out the actual need was a mistake," Ruegsegger said. "The (so-called) 'Sycamore fund' was set up to handle technology planning and has over the years been raided. It's been paid back, of course, but they lost all of the interest they could've built over time, and that might have been able to pay for what they just did with the bond money."
Money also figures strongly in Ruegsegger's resistance to Measure M; she argues the $323 million figure on the ballot doesn't include the interest that brings the total financial obligation to $661 million. With the $540 million payback for Measure I1, taxpayers would face a total $1.2 billion in debt liability, according to Ruegsegger.
That's an amount that former Pleasanton City Council member Kay Ayala said seniors can't afford.
"Measure M is premature and passed by the school board in the height of the holiday season when no one was paying attention," Ayala said in an email. "Past superintendent (Rick) Rubino assured me in 2016 that the elementary school would be built if Measure I1 was passed. The measure passed and not one square foot of classroom space has been produced and much of the bond hasn't even been issued. At a total cost of $14,000 for every person in Pleasanton, seniors can't afford another tax increase."
"I'm not saying never. I do think there is a need and that they will need more money, but they have a lot more to prove," Ruegsegger added. "They need to add capacity at the elementary level before they come back to the community and ask for more. I supported the last bond; I was happy to support it because they put adding capacity into the plan."
Ruegsegger also shared concerns about the ballot language being "sufficiently vague that they can pick and choose projects and called out specifically that they don't have to do specific projects they say they're going to do, even if they have the money to do it."
In the past year, some Amador community members have said their support of a new bond measure would hinge on the promise of building a new gym.
If Measure M passes in March, Maher said he intends to fulfill that promise, as well as one that he's personally made: "One thing I promised to do was do away with portables," he said.
Measure M project descriptions
The board's resolution for Measure M outlines types of projects that would be funded through the $323 million bond measure. Here's PUSD's synopsis of the key project areas:
* Upgrade remaining roofs and HVAC
* Modernize existing science labs
* Upgrade drop-offs at various sites
* Replace/reseal paving/concrete at schools
* Replace/upgrade playgrounds at various schools
* Upgrade playfields at various middle/elementary schools
* Necessary school building repairs
* Upgrade district wireless network and backbone
* Additional capacity to accommodate enrollment growth
* Covered shelters at various schools
* Replacement/modernization of high school gyms
* Build/update high school theaters.
Editor's note: The story has been updated to correct an error in the top caption regarding funding source for the Amador science building (Measure I1) and to clarify details about the expiration of the two older bonds (from 1988 and 1997) and the voter polling from earlier in 2019. The Weekly regrets the confusion.