The Public Eye

Elk Grove Unified seeks $450 million school bonds vote in November

The Elk Grove Unified School District is pursuing its first school bond measure to repair and modernize older schools – and possibly build new ones.

The region’s largest school district wants voters to authorize selling $450 million in bonds on the same November ballot that will contain a $9 billion statewide initiative for K-12 campuses and community colleges.

The local measure would provide a share of the $1.7 billion the Elk Grove district says it needs to keep air conditioners running, patch roofs and provide new technology at 66 existing schools, as well as to build new campuses for the 13,940 additional students expected over the next 10 years, officials announced at a school board meeting this week.

As proposed, Elk Grove district homeowners would pay about $38 per $100,000 of assessed property value annually. That amounts to $96.52 for the average residence in the district, which is valued at $254,000, said Robert Pierce, Elk Grove Unified associate superintendent of facilities and planning.

While Elk Grove Unified has never before floated a school bond measure, the district collects facilities money from residents through an assessment district approved in 1987. Homeowners annually pay between $45 and $200 depending when their home was built, according to Pierce. The assessment is expected to raise $15.2 million this fiscal year, based on a 2015 tax report.

Pierce said a misconception exists that Elk Grove is a new district. Its schools are 20 years old on average. Many school sites are in dire need of outdoor facilities like athletic fields and house some libraries and school offices in portables.

Ideally, the district would use all of the money to improve and repair existing schools, Pierce said. But Elk Grove Unified’s ability to devote those funds to maintenance and upgrades depends on whether the statewide initiative passes, he said.

Without the state providing money for new construction, Pierce said the district would have to spend bond funds on “critically essential” projects that include new schools for a community expected to grow. That would potentially preclude the district from upgrading existing campuses as much as it wants.

Pierce also sits on the board of California’s Coalition for Adequate School Housing, a group of school district officials and construction industry leaders who helped qualify the $9 billion statewide initiative for the November ballot. Funding for a $1.4 million signature drive overwhelmingly came from construction-related donors, according to state records.

Diane Herteg, 64, who was volunteering Friday at the Senior Center of Elk Grove, said she would support the local district bond measure.

“The bottom line is, if schools need to be fixed, fix them,” she said. “Our kids benefit from Elk Grove Unified School District. ... I think it’s important for kids to have a good place to learn.”

But Nan Mahon, 77, questioned why the school district cannot rely on the current assessment.

“They still have the assessment district,” she said. “How many times are they going to come back asking for more? I remember when we voted on that and, as a matter of fact, I campaigned for it. It’s like an empty pocket. It’s that money pit they are always talking about.”

Elk Grove Unified trustees have yet to finalize the amount of the general obligation bonds, as well as the fees the district will charge, Pierce said. The district is expected to complete its bond plan in May, and the board is scheduled to consider ballot language at its June 28 meeting.

School districts have struggled to find enough money to build campuses since state matching funds dried up last year. California voters have not approved statewide education facilities bonds since 2006.

Of the $9 billion proposed in the statewide initiative, $3 billion would go toward new K-12 school construction and $3 billion toward K-12 modernization. The initiative also would spend $2 billion on community colleges, $500 million on “career technical education” facilities and $500 million on charter schools.

Elk Grove Unified, which covers 320 square miles in south Sacramento County, will need 10 new elementary schools and a high school in the next decade, at a cost of $634 million, Pierce said.

“Absent state funding we will have to borrow money,” he said. “If the state doesn’t pass a bond in November, we are in a tough situation.”

At that point, he said, the district would ask developers to increase their contribution to district schools.

About 19,000 new homes are expected to be built in the district over the decade, generating about $305 million in developer fees. If the state initiative passes, state funds and developer fees would take care of the cost of building needed schools, Pierce said.

The proposed rate for the local bonds is no accident. A public opinion survey conducted by a research firm determined that residents are comfortable with a payment in the range of $34 to $39 per $100,000 of assessed value. It also determined that the November election would lead to higher support. The bond measure would require 55 percent approval.

Although the current assessment district offers a waiver for homeowners older than age 65, Pierce is not certain whether the proposed bond issue would have a similar exemption.

Some visitors to the Senior Center of Elk Grove on Friday did not seem bothered by the proposed tax or potential lack of a waiver.

“I’d better support it,” said Cora Davis, 80. “I’m a great-grandmother. They are in neighborhood schools.”

Diana Lambert: 916-321-1090, @dianalambert