SMUSD to Put Big Bond Measure on March 3 Ballot

Voters in the San Marino Unified School District will be asked to say yea or nay on March 3 on whether the district can issue up to $200 million in bonds to pay for facility maintenance and construction.
The decision, made by the school board at its meeting last week on a 4-1 vote, represents an attempt by the high-performing yet underfunded district to join others throughout Los Angeles County in utilizing bond loans to carry out massive infrastructure projects during a period of extremely low interest rates and in anticipation of the state taking out its own such loans for the benefit of more at-risk districts. If approved, the San Marino measure would effectively continue the current annual tax — $60 per $100,000 of assessed property value — being levied through 2025 to pay off the remainder of the local district’s prior bond measures.
“I don’t see a compelling reason to continue to wait to address our facilities’ needs,” board President Lisa Link said prior to the vote. “The cost of modernizing and ensuring safer and more secure campuses is only going to increase. As I mentioned, we’ve already delayed this decision two times [in 2016 and 2018]. The needs haven’t gotten smaller. They haven’t gotten less expensive. So let’s get started now, so that as many students as possible will be able to be taught in safer and more secure and modernized buildings.”
Board member Corey Barberie cast the dissenting vote out of a desire for a smaller bond amount and for the district to consider more updated information on its projects.
Passage of a bond measure would require the approval of 55% of those district residents who vote.
The board’s decision follows the ultimate recommendations from the Facilities Advisory Committee and comes in the wake of a recent series of public town halls, school site tours and idea-sharing through an online portal utilized by the district. Link signaled that her trust in the FAC, which was convened in March and includes educators, parents and other residents, was a large part of her decision to ask voters for the bond.
“They all did the hard work. They’re the ones who looked at everything. They know all the information and they concluded that our facilities have significant needs and that these needs exceed the amount of money that the district has to finance them,” Link said at the Nov. 12 meeting. “When we as a community ask people to come together and spend the kind of time that they did, I think we need to listen to them and not just listen to other people who haven’t looked at those needs. We definitely need to listen to everybody’s opinions, but theirs really have a lot of value.”
Opinions abounded that evening, with 15 audience members weighing in on the discussion, most either supporting the bond measure in full or calling for a smaller borrowed amount after Superintendent Jeff Wilson took more time to outline his plan for the district. Some cited the escalating costs of the recently completed Barth Athletics Complex — and the debt the district took on to build it — as a reason to, at the very least, pump the brakes.
“Bankruptcy is not unheard of in districts that manage their money and projects the way this district does,” said Su Viswanathan, whose family moved to San Marino when she was a kid because of the schools’ quality.
Joelle Conzonire Grossi, whose children attend Valentine Elementary School, noted witnessing her peers’ children slowly gravitate out of the San Marino public schools to area private schools.
“It’s not about the facilities. It’s not about the classrooms. It’s just about the enrichment and the dynamic academics,” she said. “I’m not saying everything is perfect, but for this kind of a bond and to put this kind of burden on a lot of people, whether they’re young or old, it should be re-evaluated.”
Some commenters were concerned about the city’s revenue base. Miriam Quan, pointing out that nearly half of the city’s population is older than 45, said the district should consider how to reach out to that segment because it is less likely to have children in school. Pointing to the district’s steadily declining enrollment and a city footprint that has essentially maximized its land use, Thomas Tai said he was concerned about revenue. Senior citizens are permitted to opt out of the district’s taxes.
“In 30 years, things may change very much,” Tai said. “We are not likely to get a larger tax base here. We already have a very small tax base.”
The board last week considered three broad bond scenarios, including the $200 million note it moved forward on. Wilson, who formally began in July, also discussed a $99 million option that would cover all of the priority one and two recommendations — “These are issues that we know are right in front of us,” he explained — and a handful of priority three options, including replacement of seven temporary portable buildings at Valentine that have exceeded their lifespan. A possible $168 million note would have added even more items, including a new building for the west wing classrooms at San Marino High School.
“I like to say that anybody who owns a house knows that if you don’t keep it updated every two decades or so, you’re in trouble, as I’ve learned recently,” Wilson said last week, noting that the majority of SMUSD facilities were built between 1917 and 1953. “[There is a] near universal agreement that SMUSD has aging facilities, with immediate needs related to safety, security, infrastructure, energy conversation, tech and wellness.”
Should voters OK a bond measure and the district takes out the full total (as with every bond, the approved amount is “up to,” and the district could very well decide to ultimately borrow less), it is estimated the tax to pay it off would run through 2058. Wilson added that low interest rates might allow for an earlier payoff, and that because it normally takes 18-20 months for the Division of the State Architect to approve designs, the soonest the district could expect to break ground on anything would be mid-2022.
With that in mind, Wilson emphasized that the 97 projects recommended by the FAC that the $200 million bond would tentatively cover had room to be modified based on need or revision of use, especially because most large bond-funded initiatives take around 12 years from start to finish.
“We’re not talking about the next year or the next two years,” Wilson said. “We’re talking about a long period of time here, and so over that period of time, there’s going to be a lot of interaction with future boards of education and future superintendents — I’m getting old — and the fact is that we will have people in the community who bring their expertise to the table who are going to allow us to really think outside of the box.”
Some speakers in the audience did not reject the possibility of approving an altogether new bond, but said they preferred that Wilson develop his own master plan for the district before holding an election. (It should be noted that bond elections are, by state law, required to be held on even-numbered years.) Peter Sinclair, a Huntington Middle School parent, claimed that parents were far more concerned with the quality of instruction than of the buildings.
“I can tell you, as a parent with a kid in school, that I support a bond — maybe even bigger than what’s been proposed here — but in two to four years,” Sinclair said. “Parents do not want facilities. I’ve never had — except for one time in the last four years — a parent approach me and complain about facilities, including the Valentine portables. Everyone complains about a few things.”
Sinclair added that in his examination of comments submitted through ThoughtExchange, an online portal the district used to solicit recommendations and discussion from residents, only seven of the most supported 100 comments were pro-bond, and none of those cracked the top 50 of that list. He said the “clear themes” that emerged in those discussions were curriculum investment, dissatisfaction of the administration and distrust of the district’s financial management.
“There seems to be a disconnect between the ThoughtExchange comments and what the board has concluded, which is to build,” resident Julie Lin added.
Among supporters of a bond loan, Jim Barger, who served on the FAC, acknowledged the concern for having quality education before quality facilities, but said the district can do both.
“Our competitors, who are the communities around us, they are fixing their facilities up, and people make choices on where they want to live based on the quality of the schools, which is not just the facilities themselves, but the education,” he said. “It’s a little hard to attract a good program if we don’t have, like, science labs. Someone said we don’t need an auditorium. We need all those things. Well-rounded kids make well-rounded communities, and not everyone is going to be in the science department.”
Jeff Morris, speaking on behalf of the FAC in the absence of chair Jeanie Caldwell, reiterated the committee’s support of a measure to borrow $200 million. He noted that the FAC spoke with those involved with the 1996 bond measure — as well as the 2000 bond measure required to bridge shortcomings — and their “cautionary tale” was to make sure the approved amount is enough to cover all of the work.
“We believe there is enough flexibility in the list of facility needs to accommodate Dr. Wilson’s vision as he continues to engage the community and lead this district forward with a fresh set of ideas,” Morris added.
Stefanie Killackey, the Valentine PTA president, opined that the quality of facilities synergizes with the yearning for quality instruction.
“I have seen firsthand at Valentine how difficult it is for a teacher to try to teach her lesson only to have to compete with an obnoxiously loud air conditioner, or … hearing that over $500 in books were recently destroyed because of a leaking library roof,” Killackey said. “Two hundred million dollars will not only allow for the structural repairs that clearly must be done, but will also allow for a meaningful investment in our children’s future that gives our students the opportunity to learn and thrive in state-of-the-art facilities.”
SMHS student Grace Davis, the student representative on the school board, said that the priority one and two items were no-brainers and that physical environments play a large role in the student experience. She added that teaching quality was obviously important but that is also mattered to give those teachers the best opportunities to teach.
“I can tell you, when I’m sitting in my Spanish classroom and I can hear the air conditioning buzzing while I’m trying to take a test, it’s not exactly the easiest thing to do because I’m easily distracted by small sounds,” Davis said. “We’re going to have to do it at some point anyway, so why not do it now and get this bond voted on and have those facilities improved, so that our students can have the best facilities? Otherwise, it’s just going to diminish our educational experience.”
Link said quality programming and facilities were not “mutually exclusive” and acknowledged the diversity of opinions on this issue. Normally, she added, the school board makes inoffensive policy decisions, but on especially contentious issues like this one, the board makes an effort to listen to all voices.
“In those situations, the board is not going to make everyone happy with what it decides, but that is not our job,” Link said. “Our job is to make decisions that will best serve all of our students in our district.”
Board member C. Joseph Chang pointed out that voters carry the weight of the ultimate decision on the bond.
“Tonight, when we make a decision, you the citizens make the final decision,” he said. “We just make a suggestion.”

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