School district’s ballot Measure Q stirs debate

Skye Kinkade

Siskiyou County residents will be voting on several bond measures on the Nov. 4 ballot, depending on where you live.

One of them is the fundraising Bond Measure Q, which will authorize the Siskiyou Union High School District to sell bonds totaling $12.5 million dollars.

According to the full text of Bond Measure Q, the $12.5 million will be used to repair  and update high schools and to expand career and technical education facilities. In addition, the bond money would allow SUHSD to receive millions of dollars in matching state funds.

It’s estimated that Measure Q would cost taxpayers $21.45 per every $100,000 of assessed property value. The group known as Citizens in Support of Measure Q point out that if your assessed property value is $150,000, your cost will be approximately $32 annually, or less than ten cents per day. They say when people are told what their costs for Q will be, most say it would be affordable for them.

Proponents of the measure, such as Dick Holmes, the chairperson of Citizens in Support of Q, believe that Q is absolutely necessary in order to give local kids the education they deserve. “California has failed to support our schools,” said Holmes, pointing to the lack of funding for essentials such as teacher salaries and facility maintenance. “‘No Child Left Behind’ is a federal failure... [this country is] not putting their money where their mouth is.”

“Many schools are pushing bonds,” said SUHSD superintendent Mike Matheson during the District’s Oct. 8 board meeting. “[SUHSD] is only one of many school districts in the state pursuing bonds to use for construction type projects... it’s a sign of the times.”

Because of the lack of alternative funding options, Holmes said school districts must “turn to local communities in order to fund projects that desperately need to be done.”

Measure Q funds would be used to repair schools throughout the district, some of which have serious physical problems such as leaking roofs as well as mold and rot damage.

Also, Q funds would go to replace antiquated boiler systems at each school site, including Weed, Mount Shasta, Happy Camp, and McCloud. Matheson said the district currently spends about $3.5 million annually on the running of school heating and air conditioning systems. “There are more efficient systems out there... with alternative systems, we would save an estimated $170,000 to $200,000 annually on electricity and fossil fuels,” said Matheson.

The school which is perhaps in most need of repair is Happy Camp, which has not only a leaking roof, but also a drainage problem which has caused mold and mildew damage. “The drainage problem at Happy Camp is enormous,” Matheson said. He estimates the cost of repair to be between $750,000 and $1 million. “This project is beyond our scope... [we can’t] resolve it within the district budget... Passing Q opens the door to correct these major problems.”

While most agree that Happy Camp’s drainage system and costly heating systems are an issue, some question if Measure Q would be the best solution to the problem.

Some community members are concerned about passing a measure which wouldn’t be paid off for 40 years. In an opinion letter which was too long to be printed in this week’s paper, Richard McDowell of Mount Shasta writes, “The repayment of this bond even at 5% interest would cost property owners around $28 million. This is a large commitment of financial resources especially when one considers that many of the projects will be at the end of their useful life long before we finish paying for them.”

McDowell continues by urging the district to “consider alternative means to conserve funds... and reduce the need for additional funds before taking on this massive debt.... All possible options to cut costs should be on the table.” He makes several suggestions of ways to do this, including the acceptance of Happy Camp’s proposal to withdraw from the district, the creation of an fundraising group like the Mount Shasta Education Foundation of Mount Shasta Union  School District, consolidation of the District schools, longer school days, shorter school weeks, split schedules, or a rotating quarter system. “We need to start thinking outside the box,” McDowell writes. “The District should be exploring methods to build reserves to fund our schools and collect interest on those reserves instead of paying interest on bonds.”

Jana Blevins, a candidate for the SUHSD board of trustees, is staunchly against the passing of Measure Q.

“I think it’s sinful that the district is asking [the taxpayers] to pay for these repairs, because of mismanagement and maintenance neglect,” she said. “I can’t, in good conscience, vote to impose this tax on my neighbors and my neighbors’ children.”

Holmes said he takes exception to the thought that the district has failed to plan ahead. “It’s difficult to save millions for things like future boiler repairs when each decision directly affects the lives of teachers and staff,” he said. “How can we lay people off to save for a boiler? Boilers are important, but people have to come first.”

Blevins said she’s also concerned about what the bond money will be used for. “In reality, only half of the $12.5 million will be used for roofs and boilers. The rest will be used for pet projects... these are not needs, they are wants.”  She cited projects such as Weed’s proposed Career and Technical Education facility.

“[The district] has received a $500,000 grant to build a new construction technology classroom space,” said Matheson. He said the facility would include important programs such as computer-aided drafting, which are strongly called for in the community. In order to take advantage of the $500,000, the district must match the the funding.

“[The district] has worked extensively with area contractors to identify the importance [of this program] in Weed,” Matheson said by phone last week. “We have spent a year working to identify Weed’s CTE project. Happy Camp and Mount Shasta aren’t yet sure what their expansion will be... it’s important that these decisions are made by the communities, and that they accurately reflect the needs at each of the schools.”

“Modernization has not kept up with our aging buildings,” said Holmes. “Even with the near-emergency conditions at Happy Camp, the state won’t move us up on their list of priorities unless we try to solve the problem ourselves. This is the prevailing attitude of the state... it is the responsibility of the board to go public with our concerns, and say ‘these are your schools – we need your help.’”

“We want the public to understand that the district is not looking for extravagance, but just the basics for schools,” said Matheson to the board on Oct. 8.

While Blevins agrees that Happy Camp is in dire need of repair, she argues that much of the Measure Q money won’t be used for repairs, but instead for unnecessary construction. She calls attention to the proposed CTE projects. “I strongly question the necessity here,” Blevins said. “The way the measure is written, it allows the district to use the money however they want to... it’s full of pork. The board is holding out a carrot to each community, giving each school almost $1 million each for a project of their choice. Should this be considered a basic necessity?”

Board member Lori Harch, who is also a member of Citizens in Support of Measure Q, said “the district has always been totally transparent about our intentions [for Q funds.] There is no hidden agenda.” She said a CTE building at WHS has been a priority for a long time, and the district would like to take advantage of their already approved $500,000 grant. “[The measure] is intentionally general, because the board would like the ability to talk with each community and find what their priorities are... Career and technical expansion is important to local education, and the community is excited about these programs.”

Holmes stressed that there will be an oversight committee to ensure proper usage of bond monies both at the district level and at each separate school. Independent financial and performance audits will be conducted annually in order to assure this.

Holmes said the SUHSD has never had the proverbial ‘boiler in the budget.’ “Now it’s ironic that they’re being criticized for just that.”

Matheson said Q has many advantages, not only allowing the district to realize substantial savings annually in electricity and fuel costs, but  the leveraging of money from the state as well. With matching funds, local taxpayers can benefit from tax dollars they already pay to Sacramento. “This is a relatively low cost option for taxpayers to upgrade our school system,” Matheson said.

“The board is doing the responsible thing... going to the public and asking for the help they need. What else can they do?” said Holmes. “We can’t change the process [of the state] or the current financial climate... we must address the needs of the schools. We owe the kids more than this, and we need the community’s help.”