Homework improvement

Measures Q and R would give city schools a much-needed facelift. But they won’t save the jobs of any teachers, counselors, librarians or custodians.

Last year, C.K. McClatchy High School had nine custodians; this year, it has only three.

Last year, C.K. McClatchy High School had nine custodians; this year, it has only three.

Photo illustration by Priscilla Garcia

Some problems school principals face are constant but easily managed. For example, the two C.K. McClatchy High School kids getting too friendly with each other in the hall. Principal Peter Lambert chides them as he walks by, hardly breaking stride, “I appreciate you two practicing your CPR, but please let each other breathe now.” The boy and girl sheepishly disengage and go their separate ways.

The bigger problems are the ones Lambert can’t wave his hand at and make go away. It’s the layoffs, the closed library, the dirtiness and disrepair of his school.

Some of those problems, not all, would be helped by Measure Q and Measure R—the $414 million package of bond measures that Sacramento voters will decide on November 6.

The bond money would be used to fix up schools in the Sacramento City Unified School District, improve physical-education facilities, build new science labs, make energy-efficiency improvements and install new technology in the classrooms, among many other projects.

But Q and R won’t solve crowded classrooms, layoffs and lack of basic maintenance of school facilities.

Inside McClatchy, Lambert points out a staircase where a layer of grime has built up on each step. “You never used to see this,” he said. Overall, floors look like they haven’t been mopped in a while, and there’s a fair amount of trash littered around the campus.

There are almost 2,400 students at McClatchy, so you expect it to get a little messy, right? But Lambert shakes his head, explaining that last year his school had nine custodians but this year it has three. “They’re pulled in so many different directions. They can’t keep up.”

Some teachers have even complained to SN&R that rats and roaches have been seen at McClatchy.

The gymnasium’s heating and air conditioning are shot, so it can get to be 100 degrees inside on hot afternoons. The school auditorium is a beautiful, historic space with more than 1,000 wooden seats. (The school was built by the Public Works Administration in 1937.) But the auditorium stage floor is buckled and warped, and nearly all of the seat backs have been carved up with graffiti. Here too the air conditioning doesn’t work.

The school’s culinary-ed program is suffering because the kitchen classroom is a hodgepodge of donated materials. The ovens look like they were salvaged from a 1970s apartment complex. Two of the four ovens have signs on them reading “Gas leak. Do not use.”

Other area schools have modern, commercial-style kitchens, says the school’s culinary director Jennifer Kadry. “It’s hard to train the students in job skills if we don’t have up-to-date stuff,” she said.

McClatchy’s cafeteria is also out-of-date and undersized. “Trying to get all of the students through here is a complete disaster,” said Lambert. Some students see the lunch lines and give up. “They don’t eat lunch. That’s just not OK.”

McClatchy’s problems are common throughout the district. At Bret Harte Elementary School, principal Santiago Chapa showed SN&R cracked and pitted blacktops, and play fields that don’t drain properly and turn slushy and swampy in the winter. At Ethel Phillips Elementary, the school has old single-pane windows that waste energy. The basketball courts have no hoops.

According to a facilities assessment that SCUSD commissioned last year, district schools need about $1 billion in upgrades.

Measure Q is the bigger of the two bonds. That $346 million would go to pay for new classrooms, science labs, heating and air conditioning, bathrooms and new classroom technology. The smaller bond, Measure R, would raise $68 million for playgrounds, fields and athletic facilities, and kitchen facilities.

Each requires 55 percent approval by voters. And each would be paid back over time by additional taxes on area homes and commercial property. The district says the measure will cost the average homeowner about about $7 a month on their property taxes.

As with any financing, there’s interest, and the amount of money that has to be paid back is much higher than the amount borrowed. The district estimates that the bonds will ultimately cost taxpayers $734 million over 25 years, in exchange for $414 million borrowed today.

Bonds can only be used for facilities, so they won’t directly solve some of the district’s more difficult problems. For example, the bonds can’t be used to save the jobs of any teachers or counselors or librarians or custodians. They can’t be used to restore school-bus transportation or to bring back the district’s adult-education programs.

Last spring, the district held meetings to solicit input from parents and teachers about the particular needs of each school. The district asked specifically about “facility” needs, but parents and teachers expressed concern about a variety of issues, from class sizes to after-school programs.

At Clayton B. Wire Elementary School, there was a call to replace windows that had been inflicted with bullet holes but also concern for “books not buildings.” At Sutterville Elementary School, parents listed class-size reduction as priority No. 1. At McClatchy and other schools, parents supported the idea of parcel tax—which wouldn’t raise as much money as a bond measure, but could be used to restore personnel and programs.

Exactly how the decision was made to forgo a parcel tax and go with bonds instead is a little murky to outsiders.

The school district can’t take a position on any ballot measure and can’t be directly involved in the campaign. The SCUSD’s elected board of trustees agreed to put the bonds on the ballot. But all of the organizing has been a private effort, carried out largely behind the scenes by some better-connected parents and school-board members.

Board member Patrick Kennedy serves as co-chairman for the Yes on Measures Q & R campaign. He says that school bonds have many advantages over a parcel tax. A parcel tax would require a two-thirds vote, compared to the 55 percent vote needed to pass the bonds. Despite the positive polling that the district received early on, this year’s ballot has since grown crowded with potential competitors: Proposition 30, the governor’s ballot measure; statewide education-funding initiative Proposition 38; and the city’s sales-tax measure, Measure U.

Kennedy also noted that a parcel tax would raise no more than $4 million or $5 million, compared to more than $400 million in bonds. “It was clear that the bond would meet more of our needs,” Kennedy said.

And Kennedy said that the district could use money saved on energy and water bills to fund other programs. According to estimates by the district’s bond consultant, the district could save $1.7 million to $2.5 million every year from the energy and water saved by the building improvements.

By comparison, the district had to cut $28 million out of its budget last year. Eliminating school bus transportation saved SCUSD about $1 million, increasing class sizes (and laying off teachers) was worth about $4 million; getting rid of counselors saved $1.7 million.

Taxpayers will spend more on bond interest every year than will be saved in energy and water bills. However, the school district still counts the savings, because the bond payments are paid by homeowners and not the school district.

“The bond repayment doesn’t come from their budget. It comes directly from the taxpayers. That changes the incentives,” said Mike Day, a member of the Sacramento Taxpayers Association, which has opposed measures Q and R.

Day served on the bond-oversight committee for Sac city schools, overseeing an earlier set of bonds, and is one of the founders of the California League of Bond Oversight Committees. He said SCUSD has a history of wasting bond money. “Cost effectiveness has never been a priority at Sac City,” said Day.

Kennedy counters that measures Q and R contain more stringent audit requirements than past bonds.

The teachers’ union is supporting the bonds, with some reservations. “For years, we’ve been saying that we need facility fixes,” said Lori Jablonski, a McClatchy High government teacher, active in the Sacramento City Teachers Association. “I do question why we didn’t look for a way to restore programs and deal with some of our immediate staffing needs.”

In 2010, when district officials and teachers agreed to certain concessions, there was language in the deal that “the parties agree to work together to seek a parcel tax as soon as possible.”

“But those discussions never happened,” said Jablonski.

“Our library is not open. The stairs are beyond disgusting. The kids are sitting on them, sitting in filth. The mopping isn’t happening, because there’s no one to do it,” Jablonski added.

As a district administrator, principal Lambert can’t publicly endorse the measures. Asked how he would feel about having new and improved facilities that are still dirty and understaffed, he shook his head again. “All I can say is we need it all.”