After Outcry, SMUSD Tables Bond Vote

Shelley Ryan
Shelley Ryan

Following weeks of debate within the community, the San Marino Unified School District Board of Education will wait to call an election to vote on $148 million in bonds for the purposes of funding a host of facilities projects.
“We are going to continue the discussion, but we did pull the actual voting off the table,” Board President Shelley Ryan said Monday, ahead of the Board of Education meeting Tuesday evening (after The Outlook’s deadline).
“We want to continue discussion. It was my feeling a lot of the community didn’t understand some of the issues and needed to learn more information. We need to spend more time answering questions, going over and explaining things so that they have the answers that they need.”
After being introduced by first reading at the previous meeting, the board planned to hold another public hearing and final vote this week for its second reading, per usual practice. However, residents packed the board’s meeting room at the first meeting to air varying grievances regarding the proposal and also held a separate town hall-style meeting last week.
It was clear the road to attaining the minimum 55% approval from voters within the next few months was going to be a bumpy one, although the proposal did have vocal support from members of the community that included PTA Council leaders.
“We have to listen to all the voices, not just the sampling from one evening,” Ryan said.
As of Monday, the board was slated to instead review its facilities needs report, which largely fueled talk of the bond proposal. The money would have been used to address decades of deferred maintenance as well as substantially upgrade portions of the district’s four schools.
“Basically, we’ll look at other options,” Superintendent Alex Cherniss said. “March of 2020 is one option. The new board at the time could consider that.”
March 2020, Cherniss explained, would allow the proposal to be marketed as an effective tax extension thanks to plans to finish paying off the 1996 bond note (which was refinanced in 2000) by 2025. La Cañada Unified School District recently passed its own bond proposal on similar grounds.
The fact that SMUSD is still paying off its 1996 bond note was a point of contention among residents, who argued against paying even more taxes as a result of this recent proposal. If approved, property owners within SMUSD’s jurisdiction (including those outside of city limits) would have been assessed an additional $60 for every $100,000 of assessed property value annually.
Some taking issue with the bond expressed sticker shock at some of the proposal pricing. Others suggested having the bond election in November instead, when three of the Board of Education’s seats potentially will be contested.
Proponents of the bond proposal argued that dated facilities and oft-malfunctioning equipment served as unnecessary impediments to the growth of the district, which is routinely ranked by the state as its top-performing. They also pointed out the district could not fund virtually any of these projects on its own because the vast majority of its general fund is dedicated to programming and faculty.
Cherniss said he was not disappointed by the development and would continue updating the board and public on district issues. He estimated this issue could be tabled “for at least a few years.”
“Our needs haven’t changed,” he said. “I’ll keep articulating what our needs are and leave it up to the board and community to decide. The board may feel like now is not the time to bring this to the community and maybe down the road will be a better time.”
Ryan said she hopes to continue discussion about the district’s needs and reintroduce a resolution at the appropriate time. She said she’s already been approached several times about hosting additional town hall meetings and hopes to tailor them to include a wider variety of community voices.
“The needs are still there,” she said. “We still need to address them. As a board, we need to look at that and make sure our priorities are in place. At some point, we will have to move forward or not move at all. Because there are three seats available for this November, it doesn’t mean we just pass the buck to whoever comes in. It’s our responsibility to address things as they come up, not defer and defer and just wait for someone else to address it.”

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