Bond revisited

Lawyers are telling the Chico Unified School District that it can shift from what it planned to spend bond money on without running afoul of the law. But trustees are wary.

At a workshop March 1, the Board of Trustees met in the library at Pleasant Valley High School to discuss a range of options that included using the money to renovate and add to existing campuses, or simply refunding the unspent funds to voters.

It was a conversation that would have been unthinkable six years ago, when volunteers and the district successfully campaigned for a $48.725 million bond that would pay for a new high school, along with projects on each existing campus.

Attorney Addison Covert, a district consultant, told trustees that the prior board and staff “had the good sense to make sure that the ballot language was broad enough” that the funds could technically be used for improvements at other schools rather than to build a high school.

Rather than cheer trustees, the information seemed to give them pause. Voters believed they were casting their ballots for a new high school, recalled Trustee Anthony Watts, and, “the other stuff was in the periphery.”

Trustee Scott Huber agreed: “When people approved the bond they wanted smaller high schools.”

While the district has issued $18 million in bonds, the remaining $30.725 million have been authorized but not issued, meaning that taxpayers are not being assessed on the latter amount.

The district also leveraged developer fee dollars to buy the site. About $51.69 million is still available to spend.

The need for a third comprehensive high school was prompted not only by what was at the time characterized as overcrowding, but also because of growing enrollment that was predicted to pass the 19,000 mark by 2018.

Instead, enrollment plummeted at the elementary level. It’s an unexpected scenario that’s been mirrored in districts all over California. With each child lost, districts lose average daily attendance (ADA) money from the state.

“How could we have been so wrong?” lamented trustee Rick Anderson, asking the district’s demographics adviser, Cheryl King, how confident people should be in the new numbers that predict a slight, slow enrollment rebound.

“I feel very comfortable,” King said. “Chico’s in a cycle where there’s more retirees moving in and fewer people having children.”

The bottom line, Randy Meeker, the district’s business manager, told trustees, is, “We have lost millions and millions of dollars over that time and we do not have the money in our operational budget to operate a third comprehensive high school.”

Meeker said it costs $1.7 million a year each to operate Pleasant Valley and Chico high schools, and a third would likely cost as much. And that figure doesn’t take into account the teaching and counseling staff.

In early 2000, the district convened a committee that created an “Education Specifications” plan for the new school, conceiving it as a 1,400-student campus that would pay special attention to the arts and even include a theater.

But that plan has not been mentioned in years, as time has eaten away at the bond’s buying power and the purchase of the land for the high school near Bruce Road and The Skyway was delayed by environmental constraints. Building the school as planned is now estimated at nearly $90 million, according to district staff.

But now, the district is rethinking the philosophical wisdom of trading two large high schools for three smaller ones.

The principals of both Chico High and PV told the board that with schools much smaller than 1,500 or 1,600, they would lose elective options, including AP courses. The high schools are at about 1,800 to 1,900 now, down from 2,100 to 2,200 at the time the bond was passed.

“It was crowded,” acknowledged Mike Rupp, principal at PV. In any case, “We can make it work and students achieve well and get a good education. A school of about 1,800 to 2,000 is right to me. … I would hate to see a school of 1,400 in a town like this.”

They also said that they don’t view portable, or “permanent relocatable” buildings as problems, other than the fact that many of Chico High’s are in poor shape.

It wasn’t until Trustee Jann Reed asked specifically when enrollment will increase that district officials pulled out another chart—one showing that, with Chico growing by 2,701 students over the next 15 years, the CUSD will need two additional elementary schools of 500 students each. The district just closed two schools.

“I feel like there are conflicting sources of information,” Reed said. “I don’t feel like we have a clear view of what we expect, what we demand, what we desire.

“It isn’t just about Canyon View. It’s about Chico Unified in five or 10 years.”

Anderson, the only sitting trustee who was in office when the bond passed, said, “We need to not think of it as free money that we can just go build something.

“Some of that conversation is going to be uncomfortable.”