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School budget
New cost projections associated with Measure LL are running millions more than originally estimated. File photo
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Vista Unified faces school bond shortfalls

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article has been updated to include comments from John Aguilera, a member of the Citizen Bond Oversight Committee for Measure LL.  

VISTA — Dozens of projects are in jeopardy after Vista Unified School District discovered underestimated cost projections associated with Measure LL, the $247 million school bond passed in 2018.

VUSD Board of Education President Rosemary Smithfield said a former employee charged with calculating the project costs undershot those estimates. It now leaves the board and district with difficult decisions in the coming months as the new cost projections are running millions more than originally estimated.

The bond outlines upgrades and improvements over five phases through 2035, including several projects to build permanent structures at several campuses. The district has already completed four projects and at least $22.5 million in bond funds has been committed as of August, according to Ami Shackelford, VUSD’s assistant superintendent of business services.

Shackelford was hired by the district after the bond project costs had been submitted and approved to go out to the voters.

“I do know we are watching every penny,” Smithfield said. “What the last leadership did with putting prices next to these projects, there was no rhyme, reason or anything. They just put numbers down.”

She said of the current projects completed, the district came in at or below those estimates, except for the Vista Magnet Middle School pool. Another issue has been change orders driving up costs, Smithfield added.

Bill Faust, who worked in the VUSD finance department for 25 years and is running for school board, said the district is now looking to borrow $20 million from the redevelopment fund account, which the board discussed during its Sept. 15 meeting.

The first phase of Measure LL calls for $117 million in projects but is not enough money to get the work done, Faust added.

“Now you want to go out and borrow more money?” Faust asked rhetorically. “The projection is that we won’t be able to complete all the projects in Phase 3 by the time all the money is spent.”

Smithfield and Faust both said the accounting error was not caught until after the 2018 vote had passed. By then, it was too late and now the district is in the position of reassessing the entire scope of projects.

John Aguilera, who sits on the Citizen Bond Oversight Committee for Measure LL, said his group was not aware of the shortcoming in funds until their second meeting after the bond passed. He said the committee is asking questions to get a “grip” on the budget and ever-increasing costs as time has progressed as materials and labor continue to rise in a tight construction market.

He, like Faust, said it is unlikely the district will be able to complete all the projects presented to the voters. Also, Aguilera said the PLA will likely contribute to even higher costs, which is why the committee’s recommendation to the board was to vote against the agreement.

“It makes more sense to have a citizen’s oversight committee and a budget scrubbed by an outside group before a bond is formed and taken to the voters,” he added. “It was eye-opening, but why I wanted to get involved.”

Faust said it is likely at least two phases are cut and perhaps more. However, Smithfield said the board is working toward stretching every dollar in hopes the money will not run out.

As part of the bond, Faust said the Career Technical Education building at Rancho Buena Vista High School, which already received a $5.5 million grant, is in jeopardy unless the project is put on priority. He, like several other candidates, also railed against the project labor agreement, which was approved last year for four projects — all in the first three phases.

The total dedicated to the PLA is at least $5.2 million, but Faust believes those costs will also increase as the agreement allows for a 10% cost increase to estimated projections, higher labor wages (well above a prevailing wage, he said), along with opening “a can of worms” to allow contractors from outside San Diego and the state to bid on the projects.

“The voters were deceived and mislead,” he said of the PLA approval. “A PLA is going to cost more in the long run … than if we didn’t have it. To me, that is why you deceive and misled.”

The final two phases call for $104.8 million to replace portable classrooms with permanent structures at eight schools, plus millions worth of other projects. But with a shortfall in bond money, those projects may have to move up the queue, be scaled down or cut from the bond, Faust said.