SMUSD Board Talks Up $148 Million Bond

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The San Marino Unified School District Board of Education had its first reading of a resolution calling for a bond election last week, but it may have a hill to climb to convince at least 55% of voters to approve the measure once it reaches a ballot box.
Opinions varied among the standing room-only audience — some were all-in on the measure and others wanted nothing to do with it — but the consensus appeared to be that most were unsure how they felt amid concerns about the scale of the proposed bonds and the perceived suddenness of the measure.
“I really would like to get educated,” said parent Linda Gutierrez. “I just don’t know how one could vote for something they know nothing about. I want to make sure it’s something that we need. It’s a lot of money and we really should be serious and concerned of the people who are going to make that payment, who are myself and the people here.”
The Board is, at the recommendation of Superintendent Alex Cherniss, aiming to have an election deciding whether SMUSD should take out up to $148 million in bonds to help pay for a litany of proposed facility upgrades at the district’s school sites within the next 12-15 years. The bond note is expected to last around 30 years and would amount to an additional $60 per $100,000 of assessed value collected from homeowners each year.
The proposed projects include new classroom facilities, upgrades to HVAC systems and new emergency power generators, in addition to numerous site-specific proposals — for example, a new performing arts complex at San Marino High School. Some projects represent new ideas based on a facilities needs assessment while others constitute deferred maintenance.
“People talk about this being a ‘wish list’ and I can’t stress enough that this isn’t a wish list,” Cherniss said at last week’s meeting. “Our infrastructure is old. It’s outdated and we’re starting to have breakdowns. For example, the heating went down at Carver [Elementary School] this morning. It wasn’t repaired until tonight.”
The board had discussed the facilities needs assessment that pre-empts the bond proposal at a special meeting the week prior, which paved way to introducing the resolution by first reading last week. A second reading is set for the Feb. 13 meeting and, barring any substantial changes, will formally call the election.
Several residents who spoke last week, however, felt calling the election for June 5 was hasty, especially because this was the first time many of them had heard this discussion at all. Some speakers said having this issue on the November ballot — when three board seats will be up for election — made more sense.
“To give the community opportunity to address these issues in an open forum, I propose that the school board host at least two town hall meetings to discuss the matter, with at least one being conducted during non-business hours,” said Jane Chon. “San Marino has always maintained high standards for its schools and the community has always been generous in its support.”
Others were concerned how the additional taxes would impact the city and, in particular, residents’ abilities to continue to donate to organizations like San Marino Schools Foundation.
“We’re talking about $2,000 [per year] a house, easily, especially for those who have bought in the last 10 years,” said Joyce Batnij.
Some residents spoke favorably to the issue, noting that some of the proposed projects date back to the district’s master plan that was developed in the ’90s. Andy Barth, a former board member whose family has donated millions of dollars to help fund a new athletic complex at Huntington Middle School, said it is in the best interest to approve the bonds now because waiting will simply make the projects more expensive.
“If we had waited just five or 10 years, the $70 million that we spent [on facilities] would have needed to be three times that,” he said, referencing the bonds the district took out in 1996 and refinanced in 2000. “Construction costs do not go down over time. Those figures are not speculation on my part. Anyone can document for themselves the construction costs of neighboring projects during that time frame.”
PTA Council President Jennifer Chuang said the possibility of these projects and bonds was being talked about as far back as 2015 and she believed the time to act upon them was now.
“Some might say we are still paying off the old bonds and that this is an unfair tax burden on the homeowners,” she said. “San Marino is one of the only cities in the state that has seen continuing property value increases even through the great recession and that is because of the schools. It’s the schools that ensure those values and I think that’s a bargain. This is not a choice between better buildings or better teachers: We can have both.”
Some residents balked altogether at the idea of taking on additional debt service while still paying off the previous bond notes, especially for the purpose of razing existing facilities for new ones.
“There’s no consideration of emergency or contingency. What happens if something goes wrong? You have no contingency,” said Ryan Tai. “This debt will pass onto our children. Is this the right thing to do? Ladies and gentlemen, think about it. This is not going to go away. This is not Saudi Arabia, with its free money.”
School principals were on-hand to walk through their schools’ specific needs and advocate for funding for these projects.
Carver Principal Michael Lin pointed out issues like a deteriorating blacktop that presents a safety risk because kids could trip on cracks and that issues like a leaky roof that have been put off for years are affecting recently renovated parts of the school, like the library.
At Valentine Elementary School, numerous temporary classrooms have long exceeded their intended lifespans, Principal Colleen Shields said, and antiquated HVAC systems prove disruptive to classrooms. The school’s small drop-off point also presents a hazard to motorists on Huntington Drive, she said.
Principal Jason Kurtenbach at HMS said the school’s HVAC systems have been similarly disruptive for students and teachers and said the project to secure the physical campus was particularly important because HMS is an unusually open campus.
SMHS Principal Issaic Gates touted proposed upgrades to his facilities as a way to continually develop cutting edge programming for his students and said a variety of limitations on campus create roadblocks for student growth.
Cherniss added he feels there is some urgency in getting this ball rolling sooner rather than later because it will allow the district to get in line to receive some of the state’s $9 billion it is borrowing through bonds to assist county, city and school district projects. Money is being allocated on a first come-first served basis and projects must have Division of State Architect-approval before asking for money.
That state financial assistance also exacerbates the fact that a multitude of Los Angeles County districts have recently borrowed large sums of money for facility projects and will likely have contracted with local firms by the time SMUSD starts putting projects out to bid.
“There’s going to be a backlog,” Cherniss said. “It’s already started. We all are competing for the same architects and the same construction projects.”
Chet Wang, managing director of the financial advisory firm Keygent Advisors, said low interest rates create a favorable borrowing environment for public bodies and advised borrowing the money in small chunks at a time to avoid paying interest on the whole amount the entire time and also to skirt an IRS rule that borrowed money must be spent within three years.
Cherniss, addressing naysayers, said part of the reason for the pileup of deferred maintenance is because 90% of the district’s relatively slim general fund budget is tied to faculty and staff and there are few available resources for that maintenance in a given year.
“We have had quite a bit of time to study this,” he said. “This is not, again, big fancy buildings. We want new pipes, new plumbing, new air conditioning. These are essential needs. We estimate we have about $20 million in essential needs in our infrastructure.”

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