In Fullerton, the K-12 public schools are separated into two school districts. Both the Fullerton Elementary School District (FSD) and Fullerton Joint Union High School District (FJUHSD) have placed a facilities bond on the March 3rd primary ballot. Each district is asking to raise money at the rate of $30 per every $100,000 of assessed property value located within their school district lines to pay for large facility upgrades. Assessed property values determine the amount of property taxes paid, and it is not the market value. The main difference is that almost 20 years has passed since the elementary school district passed a bond compared to about 6 years since the high school district passed Measure I for almost $150 million dollars in 2014.
Both school districts decided to place facility bond measures on this year’s primary ballot because polling data indicates that over 55% of the voting community supports investing in school facilities, California State Proposition 13 for $15 billion dollars in statewide school bonds is on the March 3rd ballot (this has nothing to do with the property tax law Proposition 13 from 1978), and the need to offset massive construction costs that major building upgrades require. Public schools serve most of our children and receive state funding at a per pupil level of $9,000- $11,000 a year. This money barely covers salaries, programs, services, and basic deferred maintenance costs.
The Fullerton Elementary School District Bond Measure “J” will raise $198 million over approximately 6 years to be paid back in 30 years. The FJUHSD (high school district) has a much larger district area including areas of La Habra, La Habra Heights, La Mirada, Buena Park and Whittier, and it plans to raise over $310 million dollars with the same payback requirements. This will be in addition to paying back the almost $150 million bond from the 2014 Measure I. Fullerton Elementary District finishes paying off the last bond it passed in 2002 in 4-5 years.
What projects are the school districts planning to build? With large facility project lists, it is easier to look at the projects as FJUHSD Trustee Marilyn Buchi refers to as “rock, gravel, and sand projects”. FSD’s Measure “J” proposes larger “rock” projects like the replacement of portable classrooms installed in the early 2000’s with new two-story buildings with restrooms and upgraded infrastructure at all 15 elementary schools and the 2 K-8 school sites. Two of the junior high schools will build gymnasiums with theater capabilities. Smaller “sand and gravel” projects include updated science classrooms, new security fencing and camera infrastructure, new roofs, updated air conditioning, venting, and heating systems, safer traffic drop off and pick up zones, modernized libraries, eating areas, study centers, and technology facilities. Computer purchases do not use bond money.
FJUHSD plans to raise an additional $310 million with Measure “K” to continue the project list started in 2014. The last of Measure I bonds will be released in late March to finish ongoing projects. The new Fullerton Gymnasium will use current bond and matching state monies so its construction is not contingent on this new bond passing. The District released exactly the same list of 2014 proposed projects but added Plummer theater upgrades, new second gymnasiums, new concession stands, locker rooms, team rooms, dance rooms, new windows, and a final paragraph stating “items not listed above”. This matches a statement by Superintendent Dr. Scott Scambray in an October Board meeting, saying that it will be good to have money on hand for any projects that might come up in the future. Artificial turf, running tracks and locked fencing are all included on this list located in the sample ballot sent out in January. The last high school bond provided money to move and modernize all three of the district stadiums with new seating, artificial turf and tracks, build new aquatic facilities at SHHS, TRHS, and BPHS, a new theater at LHHS, theater modernization at SHHS, BPHS, FUHS, and LHHS, gymnasium upgrades at SHHS, BPHS, TRHS, and LHHS, library upgrades at FUHS, LHHS, and SHHS among many other completed modernization projects.
Both proposed facilities bonds will not pay teacher salaries and only allow bond monies to be used on the projects listed in the official ballot writing. Administration of the facilities bonds includes the creation of separate community oversight committees that meet 3-4 times a year and require that all bond funds are not misappropriated, however this body cannot determine what projects will be built or the timeline of project construction. Each district committee is answerable to the school board of trustees and their findings are public record.
Lastly, why do we need facilities bonds?
The reality about public school budgets is that each of these districts serves over 13,500 students apiece. Fiscally responsible school districts spend around 80% of the state and federal funds they receive on staff, which sounds like a salary, benefit, and pension heavy budget, and it is, because not only teachers directly impact our children in schools, but the bus drivers, counselors, speech therapists, librarian technicians, front office personnel, noon aides, and classroom aides all support our children. The cafeteria workers, custodians, plumbers, electricians and other facilities maintenance people make the sites safe and clean for our children. Education is a service intense process and if it is successful, our children, grandchildren, and our neighbor’s children will be successful and able to open businesses, buy homes, and responsibly participate in our community in the future. The rest of the school budget takes about 12% for programs and textbooks, and 6% for administration. That last 2% which turns out to add up to around $750,000 to $1 million dollars a year is reserved for deferred facilities maintenance.
After 6 years of following current high school facilities construction costs from the distribution of Measure I, building one new swimming pool costs $7.5 million dollars, a new gymnasium building costs $18 million and a new theater cost around $35 million. Even modernizing classroom buildings and updating restrooms cost over $500,000 each. For any district to begin to save the money from existing budgets for even one school let alone all school sites would take years and ultimately serve very few students.
Taking out facility bonds for clearly stated projects that will last 25 years or longer serves generations of students and reflects the community’s high priority on the safety, educational environment, and providing a long-term support system for our children to thrive and grow, then return here to raise their own children. Modernized, well-kept schools raise surrounding property values and benefit the culture of a community. For many years both the elementary school district and the high school district shared their facilities with the community and even today the fences surrounding the elementary schools are opened during the evenings and weekends for public access. The high school stadiums are now locked during non-school hours to protect the artificial turf and running tracks from communal use. When a school district has a well thought out facilities plan and can identify the larger main projects needed to modernize and upgrade school site facilities, then bond measures are the main way to support these projects, and the modernization lasts for much longer than just one generation of students and usually much past the time it takes to pay off the bonds themselves. Strong, safe public schools serve all the communities’ families for decades.
Vivien Moreno is currently a volunteer Co-Chair of the Fullerton Elementary School Facilities Committee for measure J.