Terry McLaughlin: Not convinced Measure B is best use of resources
Signs are popping up around town saying “I Love My Local Schools – Yes on B”.
To be clear, Measure B is a November bond issue for the Nevada Joint Union High School District only. If approved, Measure B would authorize the district to issue and sell up to $47 million in general obligation bonds, which could be used only for capital improvements for high school facilities.
The cost of this bond would be approximately $19 per $100,000 of assessed value of taxable property within the district. Based upon today’s low interest rates, the total cost of this bond would be a minimum of $76 million over 30 years.
Nevada County residents want the best education in the safest environment possible for our high school students, but voters should take the time to educate themselves and proceed cautiously before asking our entire community to commit to the long-term program envisioned by Measure B. A great deal of information is available to anyone simply by visiting njuhsd.com. There you will find a “State Accountability Report Card” (SARC), which is a detailed self-evaluation of the district’s programs and facilities, required annually by the State of California. There are three facility rating choices — Good, Fair, and Poor — and the items rated are extremely detailed and specific, including Systems (such as gas, mechanical/HVAC, and sewer), Interior Surfaces, Cleanliness (including pest/vermin infestations), Electrical, Restrooms, Fountains, Sinks, Fire Safety and Hazardous materials, Structural Damage, and External sports facilities, playgrounds, windows, doors, gates, and fences.
The SARC report filed by NUHS in December 2015 rates the campus “Good” in all categories, with the exception of a “Fair” rating for Interior Surfaces, indicating the need for some painting and carpet replacement. The overall rating in this self-evaluation was “Good”, the highest rating available.
The SARC report filed by Bear River High School in November 2015 rated all categories as “Good”, with no needed repairs noted.
Citing that “Our local high schools are in dire need of capital repairs,” the justification for Measure B provided by the district lists a host of projects which include repairing leaky roofs, ensuring safe drinking water, fire safety, repairing sewer and gas lines, and revamping kitchen facilities, to name just a few. Just more than $18 million of these projects are designated as “High Priority.” The remaining projects listed include over $8 million for solar panels at both campuses. These repairs may be urgently needed, but beyond roof repair and painting, none of these conditions were reflected in the district’s self-evaluations (SARC), compiled less than one year ago.
Of greater concern is the current enrollment trend, which has been decreasing at an alarming rate since 1998-99, when the total enrollment was 4,559. Since that date, enrollment has declined 39 percent, to a current enrollment of 2,766. In the past 10 years, enrollment in the intermediate schools that feed into the high school district has declined 42 percent. All indications point to a continuation of this trend. The District’s own projections are that by 2019-20 the enrollment will have decreased to 2,352. Currently, Bear River’s enrollment is just under 700 and the Nevada Union campus is housing 1,600 NU students along with 40 from NU Tech, 78 North Point Independent Study students, and up to 11 Adult Education students.
While no one is advocating for a school closure, and district representatives adamantly state that there are no plans to close a campus, it is not unreasonable to project that if the enrollment trend of the past 15 years continues, the district may be forced to consider consolidating to one campus, however undesirable that option is. The district wants to believe that the enrollment numbers are stabilizing, but the demographics of our community do not support that belief at this time.
The most recent District Budget Report’s multi-year projection states “Declining enrollment in Nevada County continues to be a challenge … It is extremely important that the budget is downsized every year as enrollment decreases. Delaying reductions only exacerbates the problem to future years. The District must plan on making fiscally sound reductions in revenue projections, expenditures, and services, while maintaining high standards.”
Superintendent Louise Johnson has stated “My job is to do the very best I can for the kids … I’m fiscally conservative and fiscally responsible.” I absolutely believe this to be true of Dr. Johnson and the members of the school board, and the written policy described above reflects that responsible attitude. But the issue and ramifications of rapidly declining enrollment cannot be ignored as voters are being asked to foot the bill for extensive and expensive renovations on both high school campuses.
It is worth noting that the Roseville Joint Union High School District has placed Measure D on their ballot, requesting $96 million, with $30 million earmarked for the construction of a new campus. Roseville has more than 134,000 residents and over 10,000 high school students, with five comprehensive high school campuses. Contrast those numbers with Grass Valley and Nevada City, which jointly boast a population of roughly 16,000 — a much smaller pool of taxpaying property owners. Based primarily on the documented decline in enrollment, I am not convinced that the large scope of improvements envisioned in Measure B is the best use of our resources to enhance the education of our high school students at this time.
To come to your own conclusion, read the detailed information available at njuhs.com.
Terry McLaughlin, who lives in Nevada City, writes a twice monthly column for The Union. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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