Natomas Unified among districts pursuing November school bonds

Natomas Unified and several other area school districts have placed bond measures on the November ballot to pay for school construction and repairs despite a lack of statewide funds that typically help stretch local dollars.

In Natomas, school officials say they need $129 million to build new campuses once a federal building moratorium expires and to upgrade 19 existing schools. Folsom Cordova Unified is seeking $195 million from voters in a special Folsom district to update schools in city neighborhoods north of Highway 50, while Washington Unified is asking West Sacramento voters for nearly $50 million for renovations and repairs.

Natomas Unified, like the community it serves, faces the unique circumstance of having lived under a building freeze since 2008, when the Federal Emergency Management Agency determined levees in the area were at risk of failing. Recent federal legislation authorizing funds to fix the levees means building could resume soon.

Superintendent Chris Evans said Natomas Unified anticipates the moratorium could end before the 2015-16 school year.

The levee work, meant to improve safety for the 100,000 people living in Natomas, is likely to result in a flurry of new-home sales as developers complete communities that were left unfinished when the moratorium was put in place, said Mayor Pro Tem Angelique Ashby, who represents the area and is a proponent of the Measure J bond.

Despite the construction ban, the district of 13,500 students has experienced considerable recent growth as Natomas rebounds from a wave of foreclosures and home vacancies that hit during the recession. Natomas Unified had the region’s fastest rate of growth last year with 710 additional students; the district expects another 700 this school year, Evans said.

“This could be an interesting ride when this moratorium lifts,” he said.

The cost to Natomas taxpayers is expected to be about $59 a year per $100,000 of their property’s value, according to ballot materials. The district has put three facilities bonds totaling $253 million on the ballot since 1992.

Sacramento Taxpayers Association President Ken Payne said his group kept a watchful eye on local school districts as they drew up their November bond measures. He is satisfied so far that districts have moved away from expensive long-term bonds and focused on short-term bonds that have lower interest costs. His group prefers that districts borrow only when they identify immediate construction needs.

“It’s exciting to see a new era in financing and spending money,” Payne said.

Natomas Unified officials have recommended issuing a combination of short- and longer-term bonds.

The district will need at least two more elementary schools in the next 10 years to keep up with the growth, Evans said. A new district facilities master plan calls for spending $360 million over 15 years on construction, maintenance and upgrades at school facilities.

The district hopes to use developer fees, charter school grant funds and state matching funds – assuming a statewide facilities bond eventually passes – to come up with the $231 million needed to complete the projects in the master plan, district spokesman Jim Sanders said.

The new bond money will allow the district to start upgrading and repairing campuses, acquiring new schools and partnering with the city of Sacramento and the county on a public aquatic facility next to Inderkum High School.

Natomas officials want to redesign some classrooms to make them more like a 21st-century work environment.

“A 13-year-old would be working in classrooms that would look like you would find in a robotics company today,” Evans said.

Local school district officials had hoped state leaders would put a multibillion-dollar school bond on the November ballot, but a legislative proposal appears all but dead this year after facing opposition from Gov. Jerry Brown, who focused his efforts on a water bond.

Funds from the last state school bond – approved by voters in 2006 – are nearly gone. Districts say that has left them unable to build new facilities and forced them to dig into general funds to repair aging facilities.

Measure J money would still be necessary if the state approves a bond in the future, Ashby said. The state requires school districts provide matching funds for facilities projects if state money is used. Without a statewide bond, the district will “take care of the most important and most significant needs right off the bat,” she said.

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