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Cardiff school bond faces little opposition

ENCINITAS — In a time where school boards across the country have struggled to get buy in from their communities to tax themselves to pay for needed improvements, the Cardiff School District could be a unique contrast.

On Nov. 8, voters in the school district will decide the fate of Measure GG, a $22 million bond measure that will pay for several critical facilities improvements and green infrastructure initiatives at the district’s two campuses, Cardiff and Ada Harris elementary schools. In order to pass, 55 percent of the district voters must approve the measure.

And by all accounts, the measure is comfortably headed toward passage.

District polls show the vast majority of the community is in favor of the bond measure, which has also received the stamp of approval from the San Diego County Taxpayers Association.

Officials with the 720-student district said the overwhelming community support was cultivated over two years of outreach and input from parents and residents within the district and consulting with experts on best practices on bonds.

“We have built up a great deal of trust over the years, and we have a super well run and well regarded school district,” said Mark Whitehouse, the school board’s president, said Wednesday. “It is far easier to go to the community and ask for facilities improvements than if your district has controversy.”

A large part of Measure GG will go toward rebuilding classrooms and replace buildings at Cardiff Elementary that are 55 to 65 years old, including the school’s multi-purpose room, which is used by a number of community organizations, including the city, according to district documents.

The plan also calls for replacing leaky roofs, renovating or replacing deteriorating plumbing and sewer systems and upgrading the school’s electrical system, which the district says are inadequate.

The project also includes health, safety and security improvements as well as energy-efficiency solar, sustainable enhancements, as well as the replacement of inefficient heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems.

If approved, property owners would be assessed e $25.75 per $100,000 of assessed valuation annually for 30 years. Property owners will pay $47 million over the life of the bond.

Voters previously approved a similar bond measure in 2000, which allowed the district to rebuild Ada Harris Elementary and pay for some modernization efforts at Cardiff Elementary.

District superintendent Jill Vinson said the district began planning for the bond measure about two years ago, when the district reached out to the county’s Office of Education to perform a facilities assessment, which essentially would identify the district’s future facilities and maintenance needs and the cost for both.

The assessment revealed what Vinson said that school district officials already knew anecdotally: many of the portable buildings at Cardiff Elementary had outlived their useful life.

“What we realized were that there were some pressing needs at Cardiff school, and the needs far exceeded the school district’s ability to tackle them,” Vinson said.

With this information in hand, the district engaged the district’s parent community through a series of workshops and focus groups and conducted polls along the way.

Through these meetings and parent feedback, the district crafted the bond measure, which district officials in turn presented to experts in the field, including the County Office of Education, for further vetting.

Both Vinson and Whitehouse said they feel confident in the district’s outreach efforts over that time helped them to yield the large community buy-in, which sometimes isn’t possible in larger school districts.

Cardiff schools, they said, serves about 7,000 registered voters in a three-square-mile radius, and since many of the school-aged children live throughout most of the community, it is easier get the word out, they said.

“You’re hard pressed to live in a neighborhood that doesn’t have school aged children,” Vinson said. “So you get the benefit of people knowing about us, which in the end makes it easier to move forward, be innovative and help change happen.”

Last month, the district’s case to voters received a boost when the San Diego County Taxpayers Association issued a report endorsing the bond measure.

The tax watchdog agency wrote in its report that the district fully documented the need for the bond and a plan to execute all of its projects while implementing many of the association’s best practices, such as issuing general obligation bonds as opposed to capital appreciation bonds, which were criticized for their high payback ratios and for their longer payback windows.

The taxpayer association also noted that district would not use any of the bond money on technology, such as computers and laptops for students, which has become controversial in other districts because taxpayers continue to pay for the hardware long after it is being used by the district.

Cardiff schools do have technology initiatives in place at both schools, including a one-to-one technology program that has been in place for five years in which every student has access to a laptop or personal learning device, but it has been paid for with district and parent organization funds, not bond money.

“We were very fortunate as a district to not have that concern, and with that said, our priority is our infrastructure,” Vinson said. “We didn’t press on technology as a need for all those reasons. And if we are fortunate to have the community input and support, we wanted the bond to improve the types of things everyone can utilize, such as our facilities.”

Not everyone in Cardiff, however, supports the district’s measure. Bob Bonde, the longtime president of the Encinitas Taxpayers Association said he supported the 2000 bond, but opposes the current measure for several reasons.

Bonde, who drafted the opposition statement to Measure GG that appears in the county’s sample ballot, said that the bond measure would saddle the district taxpayers with additional debt with no legitimate justification for the bond.

“Rather than spending its operating money correcting Cardiff School problems, the District is proposing the demolition of structurally sound, fully functional buildings and rebuilding them using a massive new bond tax on property owners,” Bonde wrote in his opposition statement.

Bonde said that the district hasn’t made maintenance a priority over the years, but that these maintenance issues can be paid for through the district’s coffers, rather than a bond measure to reconstruct buildings that in some cases were modernized in the 2000 bond efforts.

He questioned why certain repairs, such as to the windows and roofs at Cardiff, were not completed in the 2000 measure even though the bond measure called for their replacement back then.

“The buildings scheduled for demolition may have been built in the 1950s and 60s but they aren’t old,” Bonde said in an interview this week. They were modernized, at great taxpayer expense, and met the district and state standards back in 2003, when the project was deemed complete.”

Bonde further asserted that even if the district does need to remove some of the older portable buildings at Cardiff school, Ada Harris campus has enough space to absorb the displace students by moving Cardiff’s third-grade students to Ada Harris, which is 30 percent overbuilt already serves most of the district’s third graders.

“They don’t have to replace the portables, even if they have outlived their usefulness,” Bonde said in an interview this week. “They want their cake and eat it too.”

Bonde also said the district’s plan calls for much larger facilities than the district currently uses, including a new multi-purpose facility that would seat three times as many as the current 300-seat room and a warming kitchen as large as the current multi-purpose room.

And lastly, Bonde points to the cumulative effects of the potential passage of both Cardiff’s measure as well as the 2012 San Dieguito Union High School District Proposition PP and MiraCosta College’s bond measure on the Nov. 8 ballot, which he said would saddle the community’s taxpayers with $2 billion in school bond taxes.

Vinson and Whitehouse, who acknowledged they were not with the district during the first bond measure, said it was their understanding that some of the maintenance being called for in the current proposition was not included in the 2000 measure because it had not reached the point of replacement.

And while some buildings that are being called out for replacement were modernized in 2000, they are still fundamentally, 50- to 6-year old buildings, they said.

Additionally, they said, while Ada Harris might be 30 percent below capacity, that is by design. Moving Cardiff elementary students to Ada Harris would increase class sizes beyond a level that parents in the district have said they would be comfortable with.

“We don’t want to be an average district,” Whitehouse said. “All of these plans were made with ensuring that our district provides the best education possible for our students.

Vinson also stressed that Bonde’s views are the minority within the community, and that Bonde was part of the focus groups and he able to present his opposition to the County Taxpayers Association to no avail.