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By Collin Breaux | Twitter: @collin_breaux

The Capistrano Unified School District is still weighing whether to pursue another bond measure to fund school facility upgrades, after similar bond measures previously failed to gather a required approval from 55% of voters.

Specifically, CUSD is now looking at a potential bond for just Dana Hills High School in Dana Point, and it is acutely aware of the challenge it faces in getting enough votes. District officials are looking for funding to renovate Dana Hills High, which—like other campuses in CUSD—is aging and in need of updated infrastructure.

The CUSD Board of Trustees heard the first reading of a sample ballot measure for the possible bond from district staff during a meeting on Wednesday, May 18. The potential measure proposes to levy two cents for every $100 of assessed property value.

No official bond measure has been formally approved to be placed on a ballot at this time.

The sample bond measure aims to get $98 million from the bond and $52 million in matching funds from the state. The sample measure will come back to the board during a June meeting for possible ballot placement approval.

“The Capistrano Unified School District Board of Trustees has determined that Dana Hills High School is almost 50 years old, having opened in 1973, and the aging school no longer effectively supports districtwide education goals and standards, including meeting current safety and accessibility standards and providing learning environments to prepare students for college and careers,” the sample measure said.

According to an informational presentation at Wednesday’s meeting, the estimated full cost for replacing classroom facilities at Dana Hills High is $285 million, with several funding sources estimated to go toward the project besides the bond measure—though the bond measure would make up the majority of funding.

If the project were to be fully funded in an absolute scope, $169 million of bond funds would be needed. However, the results of a bond feasibility survey presented during a Board of Trustees meeting in April found the amount that voters were comfortable with—$20 per $100,000 of assessed property value—would not be enough to cover those costs, so the district is prepared to narrow the project’s scale.

“It’s really tough for me, because we really have to do this,” said Board President Martha McNicholas, whose representation area covers portions of Dana Point. “We have to put this on the ballot, just for the seismic steps we’re going through.”

Specific intended use of any such bond funding would be to replace classroom buildings with upgraded facilities; providing new science laboratories; new classrooms to support specialized career training programs; improving Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) access throughout the campus; installing up-to-date air conditioning systems; and upgrading or providing additional school drop-off areas.

Katie Andersen, a member of the Dana Point community, spoke in favor of a bond measure to fund the campus upgrades.

“Based on the polling data, we are about in the same place regarding voter support as with previous bond attempts. However, I would like to argue there are some key differences with this proposed bond that you must consider,” Andersen said. “No. 1, the money would go directly to Dana Hills High School and cannot be used elsewhere for other projects. No. 2, the cost of reconstructing our school is going up. This problem isn’t getting any easier to solve, and it has to get solved.”

To put the matter in perspective, the district is asking homeowners in the area to pay only $127 to $215 per year, Andersen said.

“I will do everything I can to educate our community about what it includes and how we can all benefit from it—even homeowners without children in the public school system,” Andersen said. “I look forward to the day when school facilities actually reflect the top-notch education being delivered by our phenomenal teachers and staff at Dana Hills High School.”

Kira Davis—who is campaigning for the vacant Area 2 seat on the Board of Trustees, which covers Ladera Ranch and parts of San Juan Capistrano—encouraged the district to “think outside of the box” when looking for funding and perhaps look at other monetary sources.

“I think I came to my first board meeting many years ago, and Dana Hills improvements were on the schedule then,” Davis said. “Just being a layperson, it feels confusing (as to) why this can’t get done.

“It also feels confusing that the only solution is a bond, and it’s the only thing you guys come to us with,” she continued. “If we couldn’t get the bond passed in 2020—now, when gas is $6.39 a gallon in some places and we’re looking at record inflation—it seems impossible that we could ask the taxpayers to pay even more for these improvements that Dana Hills High does need.”

Trustee Amy Hanacek—whose area covers parts of Dana Point—said they have thought outside the box and there are myriad funding sources the district has leveraged to make funding upgrades a possibility.

District representatives have to communicate the necessity of a bond and school funding to tax-averse residents and keep trying when it comes to getting a bond passed, she said.

“Basically, schools are built either by Mello-Roos (taxes) or builders’ fees. It’s the way California is set up,” Hanacek said. “After that, it’s time for the community to then reinvest. As we’ve seen with all other school districts—except, maybe, for one—in the state of California, communities then get that message. They understand what they’re investing in. They have passed one, two, three, or four multiple bonds.”

Trustee Gila Jones—who represents parts of San Juan Capistrano—said she doesn’t like the idea of bonds, but there is “no other way” to build, replace, or refurbish schools, given how school funding is structured in California.

“School budgets are very specifically done in such a way that it really only allows—I kind of call it a starvation budget—for salaries and books and heating and lighting,” Jones said. “There really isn’t any extra money.”

Collin Breaux

Collin Breaux covers San Juan Capistrano and other South Orange County news as the City Editor for The Capistrano Dispatch. Before moving to California, he covered Hurricane Michael, politics and education in Panama City, Florida. He can be reached by email at cbreaux@picketfencemedia.com.     

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