San Diego Unified asks voters to approve $3.2 billion Measure U, its fourth school bond measure since 2008
The Nov. 8 ballot proposal would help to build employee affordable housing, upgrade facilities for transitional kindergarten and improve school security, officials say.
The San Diego Unified School District is asking voters to approve a $3.2 billion bond measure that would be the district’s fourth in 14 years.
The bond, on the Nov. 8 ballot as Measure U, would pay for many of the same kinds of facilities projects being funded by three existing bonds, such as repairing, renovating and constructing school buildings, improving school security, purchasing classroom technology and adding an alphabet soup of campus features ranging from athletic fields to science labs to energy-efficient fixtures.
There are two new things this bond measure also would pay for, according to school district officials: affordable housing for employees, and facilities specifically designed for transitional kindergarten, a grade level for 4-year-olds that the state is requiring public schools to offer by 2025. Such facilities could include classrooms with bathrooms in them or playgrounds designed for younger children, the district said.
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San Diego Unified, which operates nine schools in Point Loma and Ocean Beach, has already gotten voter approval for three bond measures totaling $8.3 billion since 2008. The last one, Measure YY, was approved four years ago, and there are still billions of bond dollars that haven’t been spent yet from those measures.
Measure U essentially would replace Proposition Z, the district’s earliest existing bond measure, which is expiring this fall, said Lee Dulgeroff, the district’s chief facilities officer. Because it would take Prop. Z’s place, Measure U won’t increase current tax rates, the district says. Measure U will cost property owners 6 cents per $100 of assessed value.
Districts used money for new staff positions and additional duties due to COVID-19, but some also used money to sustain regular operations
The total principal and interest that would have to be repaid is estimated at $7.3 billion.
There’s no clear rule on how often school districts need to pass bond measures, said Julien Lafortune, an education research fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California.
But large districts like San Diego Unified are generally more likely to propose bonds more frequently — not just because they have more buildings but because they have more property wealth they can draw on for taxes, Lafortune said. And because families in such areas have more wealth, they may be more willing to take on taxes to pay for school bonds, he said.
Measure U would fund facilities projects over 10 years and issue more than $320 million in bonds per year, according to the district.
Despite its existing bond measures, the district still doesn’t have enough resources to properly keep up its facilities, according to Dulgeroff. He said the district has a hefty task in maintaining 2,000 acres of property, 185 schools and 15 million square feet of school buildings that average 56 years old.
And even while the district has been renovating facilities and building new ones, the district’s buildings — including some recently upgraded or built — are deteriorating to the collective tune of $240 million a year, Dulgeroff said. San Diego Unified currently has about $753 million in repair, replacement and renovation needs, according to the district.
If the district doesn’t keep up with school facilities’ maintenance with more bond money, Dulgeroff said, the deterioration will accelerate and become more expensive to fix.
“In order just to ... tread water, to keep our buildings where they are, we need to spend significant funds,” Dulgeroff said. “If you look around San Diego and you see the [districts] that don’t pass bond measures, they have facilities issues that have come up.”
Building conditions are measured by what’s called a facility condition index, a percentage number that equals the existing repair costs divided by the total estimated replacement value. The lower the index, the better: An index higher than 10 percent is considered to be poor, while 6 to 10 percent is fair and 5 percent or less is good.
Under its three existing bond measures, the district improved its facility condition index from 22 percent eight years ago to 11 percent as of June 2021, and the district has been on track to reach 10 percent by this year, according to the district’s latest maintenance plan.
Under that plan without Measure U, the index is expected to continue to drop to below 6 percent by 2029; after that, it is expected to start worsening again, the district says. It’s unclear what the index would be with Measure U.
San Diego Unified officials also say new school buildings and other facilities revitalize communities and make students feel proud to attend their schools. That’s important, they say, as officials try to increase the number of families who choose to attend their neighborhood schools rather than head to other district schools or leave the district altogether.
District leaders also have pointed to the need for school security, citing the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, as a reason to pass Measure U.
“We need more resources in order to secure our campuses and make them safe against all types of threats,” Dulgeroff said.
Several people have spoken in favor of Measure U at recent board meetings, including charter school leaders whose schools would benefit or have benefited from bond projects.
The San Diego County Taxpayers Association endorsed Measure U because district officials told the group it would prioritize and “fast-track” school security measures, according to association Chief Executive Haney Hong.
School districts also need money for transitional kindergarten facilities because the state is telling schools to add the grade level but not providing additional money to do it, Hong said.
But Measure U isn’t perfect, Hong added. In particular, he’s hesitant about the staff affordable housing.
“It seems a little questionable as to whether this is the intention of Prop. 39 bonds,” Hong said, referring to a state law that made it easier for school districts to pass bond measures. “If it becomes just another source of money to increase teacher pay, that’s when the taxpayers association will really start to dislike these.”
The details are far from set in stone, but San Diego Unified is tentatively planning to build about 500 affordable-housing units for teachers and other staff at its current district office in University Heights, Dulgeroff said.
In the next few years, the district will move its central office to a property it recently purchased in Kearny Mesa, freeing up space in University Heights to build teacher housing and other community features, Dulgeroff said.
A growing number of school districts in California have been pursuing employee housing as a way to address school staffing troubles.
“That’s an important component of the bond measure, to be able to attract and retain the staff we need to run our schools,” Dulgeroff said.
A San Francisco Bay Area school district built subsidized housing for teachers and staff who could not afford market rent
Measure U has drawn backlash from district critics who say San Diego Unified is asking for billions more dollars from taxpayers to pursue projects it should have already completed with the three previous bond measures.
Becca Williams, who is running for the school board, said she’s not opposed to bond measures in principle but is opposed to Measure U because the district already has billions of dollars not yet spent from the previous measures.
“The fact that San Diego Unified is going back to voters to ask for more funds for security improvements is an admission that the school campuses are not safe after promising enhancements over the past three bond measures,” Williams said.
Stephen Rosen, a charter school board member whose nonprofit called the Aristotle Foundation aims to hold the district accountable on spending, criticized the district’s characterization of Measure U as a security measure a few months after the Uvalde, Texas, shooting.
“In my opinion, they’re shamelessly using school shootings as an emotional trigger to get people to approve the bond,” Rosen said.
Rosen said he also worries that property owners who pay for Measure U in their taxes could pass the costs to low-income renters already struggling with San Diego’s high housing costs.
Of the $8.3 billion in bond funding San Diego Unified has gotten approved since 2008, it has spent $121 million on school security projects so far, Dulgeroff reported during a June school board meeting. With the current bond measures, the district plans to spend $250 million total on security by 2024.
Those numbers, however, don’t include additional security features that have been integrated into new school buildings constructed under the current bond measures, according to district spokeswoman Maureen Magee.
A review of the district’s annual bond reports over the past five years show that several schools got new fencing under existing bond measures, but most bond projects completed during that time have not been security-related.
Some of the most common bond projects have been new HVAC systems, renovated and new classroom buildings, new roofs, parking lot improvements, new solar power systems such as carports, new schools including the Logan Memorial Educational Campus and a school at Civita in Mission Valley, and athletic facilities improvements such as joint-use fields and stadium and gym upgrades.
The school security projects the district has used its existing bond measures to fund fall mainly within three categories, according to Dulgeroff: building perimeter fencing, creating a single secure point of entry for campuses and installing emergency communication systems. Measure U would be used to go further and install security cameras, better door hardware and more and higher fencing, among other things, he said.
“The previous measures did do some hardware and cameras; we have a little bit on every campus. But it doesn’t cover the range of needs,” Dulgeroff said.
Measure U requires 55 percent voter approval to pass.
Magee said putting the measure to voters is costing San Diego Unified $700,000, which will be reimbursed to the district if the measure succeeds.
— Point Loma-OB Monthly staff contributed to this report. ◆