A town hall-style meeting Monday regarding the bond election being proposed by the San Marino Unified School District proved simultaneously informative and incendiary as officials carefully answered questions and some audience members voiced their impatience.
Amid the sometimes chaotic and other times agreeable line of questioning and answering, Board of Education President Shelley Ryan pledged to voice the concerns to her four peers on the board — they all were absent for fear of running afoul of the Brown Act — and continue listening to concerned residents. The audience at Hill-Harbison House included lifetime residents, parents who moved to San Marino for its schools, and community and business leaders.
“I will go back and I will talk to the board,” Ryan told the standing room-only crowd. “I’m going to bring it back.”
This wasn’t the first time residents packed a meeting room with concerns about this issue and it won’t be the last. On Feb. 13, the board is slated to go through a second reading of its resolution calling for the June 5 election item asking voters to approve the borrowing of as much as $148 million by the school district in the form of bonds to be paid off by additional property tax collections. The money is slated to be used to pay for a variety of new facilities or additions to the district’s four schools as well as a laundry list of deferred maintenance, with some of the listed projects being carryovers from the last bond proposal in 1996.
“Not only are we the top district [in the state], but we’re growing at a rate better than any other district in the state,” Superintendent Alex Cherniss said. “[Students] are using facilities that are in many cases old and outdated. We’re having infrastructure challenges and it’s my job as superintendent to tell the board what our needs and options are.”
Although the proposal has a contingent of vocal supporters who agree with the district’s desire to address a large amount of maintenance issues by building modern facilities, there also are those who consider themselves concerned about the scope of the issue. Others opposed it in part or outright in large part because of the nature of some of the projects and also because the school district is still collecting extra property taxes to pay off the 1996 bond (which was refinanced in 2000).
Given that three of the board’s five seats are up for election in November, some residents have suggested simply putting the bond proposal on that ballot instead.
“It seems to me, with a new board coming in — whether it’s old people, new people or a combination — that it should be up to them to implement this thing,” resident Dale Pederson said. “I think it’s better that we waited for the bond measure until November because that’s when the new board members will be elected.”
Resident Jeffrey Lin used a slideshow to explain the basic information going into the proposal. The district, which had a facilities needs assessment north of $250 million, determined $148 million as the high amount by taking the $6.8 billion of assessed property values in San Marino, finding 2.5% of that amount (which is the statutory debt limit for this type of borrowing) and subtracting the $22 million in debt the district currently carries from the prior bond.
Property owners in SMUSD — an area that includes residents outside of city limits who are within this jurisdiction — would be assessed an additional $60 per $100,000 of property value annually to pay down this debt service. The district is admittedly proposing this arrangement on the assumption property values will continue to rise in San Marino.
Some questions regarding the projects were more pointed, such as one inquiring why a proposed performing arts facility at San Marino High School was estimated to cost around $60 million when an assuredly larger one at Arcadia High School built in the last few years cost closer to $20 million.
“Arcadia [Unified School District] hit a bullseye,” Cherniss explained. “They passed a bond seven or eight years ago, and after the market crashed, they had all this money from the bond issue already and they did all this construction for like 50% of the costs now. They had money left over when they were done.”
Other questions were more general, with many wondering how priority was assigned to each school’s projects and whether residents could weigh in about those determinations.
“We started prioritizing when we started meeting with our principals and assistant principals about their campuses,” Ryan explained. “The children come first, and for me — I’m only speaking as one member of the school board — the classroom and safety come first.”
Exchanges periodically grew heated, including when one man aggressively told Cherniss not to play dumb following an answer and another one in which a woman called former board member Andy Barth “tone deaf” for implying at a prior meeting that San Marino residents are generally in a financial position to help out their schools.
“Class warfare is not a part of this town,” lifelong resident Jim Barger said. “Talking bad about people who have given generously is not a part of this town. This is very disappointing for me to hear tonight.”
Ryan emphasized she planned to relay what she took from Monday’s meeting to her colleagues and invited the residents to attend the next Board of Education meeting, which will begin at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 13, in the SMUSD district office.