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Vista school bond spending receives passing marks

VISTA — An audit of Vista Unified School District’s first year of modernization expenditures — the beginning of a massive bond-funded 15-year capital improvement program — reports sound fiscal health.

While first-year expenditures came to only $1.6 million, that spending received a “clean” evaluation, according to the 2018-19 audit the school board received at its July 23 meeting. That means, among other things, the independent auditor “reviewed all of the expenditures to make sure that they were appropriate to the [bond] ballot” voters authorized, said Assistant Superintendent Ami Shackelford.

An audit always lags the actual spending period. As of May 31, nearly a year since the auditing period, bond-funded capital expenditures had increased to $9 million, according to the oversight committee’s 2020 annual report, also presented July 23.

Graphic by Dan Brendel

Spending to date has gone to various top-priority projects, such as new classrooms at Vista High and Beaumont Elementary, pool modernization at Vista Magnet Middle, and gymnasium expansion at Rancho Buena Vista High.

Those projects represent the tip of the iceberg.

Vista voters approved Measure LL in 2018, which over a span of years would generate an estimated $247 million through incremental bond issuances — the first of which, Series A, the district issued in 2019. Including other monies, such as state matching funds, total revenues raised for more than 100 capital projects would come to $293 million by 2035.

For several decades after completing modernizations, the district will pay roughly the same amount in interest as the capital raised, bringing the taxpayers’ grand total bill, paid through property taxes, to some $500 million, according to a 2018 report. Debt service would translate to an extra $108 per year, or thereabouts, for the typical homeowner.

Many of Vista Unified’s 30 schools, which serve some 24,000 students, are getting older and no longer support what district leadership considers a quality education.

“Many of our schools were built more than 50 years ago and … are deteriorating,” according to the 2018 report. “Old fire alarms have caught fire, and kids have had to use porta-potties because school bathroom plumbing was no longer working.”

Measure LL funding “would provide classrooms, technology, facilities, labs and equipment for career and technology education classes and instruction in math and science. This would enable the district to prepare our students for college and in-demand jobs in fields like health sciences, engineering, technology and skilled trades.”

“Every year you should be seeing something new on some campus that should have been taken care of many years ago,” said Linda Latimer, chair of the bond oversight committee.

Slated projects run the gamut, from the demolition of old buildings and construction of new ones to new or repaired gutters, asphalt, disability ramps, drinking fountains, fences, furnaces, fields and bleachers, restrooms, security systems, and more.

“Things are starting to look good and go on their way,” said School Board Chair Rosemary Smithfield.