George Boardman: Let’s stick to the facts in discussion of high school bond
Observations from the center stripe: Promises edition
WHEN GOV. Jerry Brown proposed a special tax on the one percent to help finance schools, he said it would be temporary. Now that education advocates are trying to make it permanent through Proposition 55, Brown needs to step up and oppose it … IF YOUR new college student is referred to as a “first-year student” instead of a “freshman,” you know the school’s politically correct … A NEWSPAPER endorsement these days is like a kiss from your sister: Nice to have, but something you can live without … DONALD TRUMP has contradicted himself so many times, nobody notices anymore ... IF HILLARY Clinton had spent more time with the press, she wouldn’t still be getting questions about her email server …
Editor’s note: Due to an editing error, a previous version of this story incorrectly stated Nevada Union and Bear River are average schools statewide, although both schools perform better in state testing than the average California high school. Adjusting for the fact the schools don’t have as many English as second language learners enrolled as other schools throughout the state, as the author suggests, test results show a performance consistent with average among predominantly white high schools.
We’re not even in the home stretch of the campaign yet and we’ve already experienced accusations of law-breaking and lying, misleading the public with false claims, creating false fears, and putting the voting public in the position of not knowing who to believe.
I’m describing, of course, the campaign surrounding Measure B, a proposed $47 million bond issue for capital repairs and upgrades at Nevada Union, Bear River, and Silver Springs high schools.
Sounds pretty straightforward, right? Not so fast, my friend.
Opponents of the bond, an outfit called Citizens for Better Schools, claim in an argument that will actually appear in the voters pamphlet that the bond issue is a ruse to “use the bond funds to support the operating costs when enrollment falls to a level that is not supported by state funding.”
In other words, the group is suggesting that high school district officials will break the law and risk state prison terms to feather their own nests. “I’m shocked anybody would say that,” replied district Superintendent Louise Johnson.
Johnson, who is likely accustomed to engaging in fact-based arguments, shouldn’t be shocked because the Citizens group includes some of the same people whose widely exaggerated and erroneous claims helped defeat last year’s proposed tax increase for the Higgins Fire District.
Back then, Wade Freedle and Eddie Garcia appeared under the guise of Citizens for Fair Fire Taxes. Freedle, long active in local Republican Party politics, and Garcia, a leading proponent of the State of Jefferson, managed to trigger the closure of a fire station with some of the tactics on display now in the bond issue campaign.
(Citizens for Better Schools is basically a subsidiary of the Nevada County Republican Party; seven of the eight “Citizens” who signed ballot arguments opposing Measure B are currently members of the party’s central committee.)
Freedle claimed in the ballot pamphlet arguments against the fire tax increase that the “majority of calls (75 percent) are for ambulance service, but the Higgins staff does not provide any medical function since ambulance service is provided by Sierra Nevada Memorial Hospital. Fire department response is only to provide support services — if they are required.”
Fire district officials pointed out that medical issues accounted for 50 percent of their calls, that district “first responders” generally arrive before the ambulance, and personnel have emergency medical training to provide first aid, CPR, and other services.
Opponents of the tax measure also claimed in a mailing that personnel aren’t trained as EMTs (false) and that salaries are as high as $133,000 a year (actually $82,700). Freedle didn’t seem particularly concerned about the facts when asked by The Union.
“I’m just a poor country boy …,” he said. “Everything that could be classified as a fact, we are certainly ready to support 100 percent, and we’re ready to argue on verbal shadings of opinion.”
But accusing school district officials of planning to willfully break the law is not “verbal shadings of opinion”— it’s a serious accusation that needs to be backed with evidence. Citizens for Better Schools hasn’t produced the evidence because it doesn’t exist.
Bond advocates state clearly that “None of the bond funds will be used for administrative salaries. A citizen oversight committee will be appointed to insure all of the funds are directed toward infrastructure projects.”
But opponents of the bond issue raise a couple of points that need to be more fully addressed by advocates for the schools. One of them is the well-documented decline in school enrollment in western Nevada County.
The bond foes point out that high school enrollment declined 35 percent from 2000 to 2015, and middle school enrollment was down 42 percent during the same period. That leads opponents to speculate that at least one of the high schools will have to be closed before taxpayers get their money’s worth out of improvements funded by the bonds.
School proponents claim that enrollment decline has stopped and leveled off. “There are absolutely no plans to close any of these three schools, period,” they say. But there is plenty of evidence to suggest proponents are hoping that “if you build it, they will come” really works.
The Penn Valley Elementary district is getting ready to close one of three schools, there are barely 700 students at Bear River High School, and The Sacramento Bee carried a report last week that the California Department of Education predicts a 12.3 percent decline in K-12 enrollment in Nevada County by 2024-25. That’s the worst county performance in the state.
So whom should we believe — the high school district or state officials? I posed that question in an email to Johnson, who replied she hasn’t seen the education department study so can’t comment. She added that she is “pleased to report” enrollment is 65 students over projections for the school year, most of them at Bear River.
Back in March, the district projected enrollment for the 2016-17 school year of 2,603 students. Adding 65 students to that number still puts them 98 short of the 2,766 enrolled in 2015-16.
Our local high schools face a lot of issues. The recent Common Core test results show that Nevada Union and Bear River are average white high schools in California — not a good thing — and dilapidated facilities with limited access to advanced technology won’t make it easier for educators to improve student performance.
If the enrollment decline is something that can’t be reversed, school district officials need to face reality and start planning for a future of fewer schools and employees. The convenience of students and their parents shouldn’t be a consideration.
All of this calls for a comprehensive, fact-based discussion on both sides of the issue, not a repeat of the nonsense that occurred in the Higgins tax election. We can do better than the Clinton-Trump traveling circus.
George Boardman lives at Lake of the Pines. His column is published Mondays by The Union. Write to him at email@example.com.
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