Michele Ellson
Alameda school bond

Voters will get the chance to decide this November whether they want to pay for $179.5 million in bonds to repair and modernize Alameda’s schools.

The school board voted 4-1 Tuesday to place the bond on the ballot, ending months of will-they-or-won’t-they wrangling that saw some board members support, then retreat from a plan to focus bond spending on Alameda’s high schools and one – Barbara Kahn – cast the final vote needed to move forward after saying she planned to vote no.

Trish Spencer cast the lone vote against moving forward with the bond, prompting board member Mike McMahon to vent his frustration about Spencer’s frequent votes against moving forward with business the board is considering.

“I am sorry to launch a personal attack on you, but I am fed up with it,” McMahon said.

The proposed bond program includes $89.5 million to address a variety of needs at Alameda’s elementary, middle and charter schools that include critically needed building repairs, modernized classrooms, safety and security upgrades, and technology and wiring projects.

The board could vote to issue bonds to pay for those projects in the spring of 2015, and the board would also decide what projects at which schools the money would fund.

A second series of bonds totaling up to $90 million for projects at the high schools could be issued at a later date, after schools leaders and the community decide how it should be spent. Specifically, decisions will need to be made about whether to keep Alameda’s two comprehensive high schools or combine them into a single school, as some have urged.

The bond language also includes solar systems in the list of projects that could be funded by the money, though a budget drafted by district staff didn’t line out any funding to pay for them.

Advocates for the systems have estimated the cost of installing the systems at all of the district’s schools at $14.6 million.

Parents who support the bond proposal said they think Alameda’s schools are long overdue for repairs and upgrades and that the poor condition of the schools is impacting children’s learning. But others said that while they agree the money is needed, they didn’t think the bond was ready to put before voters.

Former school board member Barbara Rasmussen said that the board was in a tough spot, but that they didn’t have the time to wait to put a bond measure on the ballot.

“I recommend you turn it over to the public and let them decide whether you’ve done your job right, and that they’re willing to pay to let you do that job,” Rasmussen said.

But Bill Garvine, who served with Rasmussen on the school board, said he’s worried the district doesn’t have a solid enough plan to put before voters. And he’s concerned the bond won’t pass – and that disaffected voters will turn down a parcel tax renewal due in a few years, too.

“I want to acknowledge a great need for this. But the board and the district have not done their homework in this issue,” Garvine said. “These kinds of things are going to put the bond in jeopardy, and put the reputation of the district and board in jeopardy.”

Spencer said the measure gives the board too much discretion in deciding what specific projects will be funded at each school and how much money will be spent on high schools.

“I think it’s very fair to the community to take more time,” Spencer said. “If you vote for this you don’t know if the community is going to get one high school, two high schools or three high schools.”

She expressed concerns that the district could be sued for failing to put a specific list of projects in the ballot measure – as the district was sued over the structure of the Measure H parcel tax – but the district’s bond counsel said the district isn’t obligated to list projects in its initiative.

Board member Niel Tam said it’s the board’s responsibility to provide a good environment for students to learn in. But Tam, who taught and served as a principal in Alameda schools for four decades, said that students in schools he’s run have gone without heat and indoor bathrooms for weeks at a time and that the roof leaked at one school he worked at every time it rained.

“These are not good environments for students to be in,” Tam said. “I believe we should move on with this bond.”

In late May, Kahn said she didn’t want to move forward with the bond because she thought the board needed to develop a clear set of spending priorities, and two weeks ago she said she wanted assurances the board would control how the money was spent.

When the bond looked all but dead in late May, McMahon laid the groundwork for the plan to put a less detailed bond proposal before voters in order to buy schools leaders time to ask the community what they think the district’s facilities priorities should be.

Veteran campaigners who pressed the board to move forward with the bond called the idea of putting it on the same ballot as a parcel tax renewal a non-starter. If the district opted to place a bond measure on the ballot during a non-election year, the measure would need to gain the support of two-thirds of voters to pass, instead of the 55 percent it will need on this fall’s ballot.

The bond needed the support of four of the five board members to get on the ballot.

Tuesday’s meeting was the last for outgoing Superintendent Kirsten Vital, who’s heading to a new gig as superintendent of the Capistrano Unified School District in Orange County this summer. Vital, who cried as she read her final superintendent’s report in Alameda.

“It’s hard to say goodbye. I so appreciate having been your superintendent,” Vital said.

Board president Margie Sherratt said the board would move swiftly to find interim and permanent superintendents; board members retreated to a closed-door session at the end of Tuesday’s meeting to discuss next stemps.

School board candidate Solana Henneberry and Alameda Education Association president Audrey Hyman urged the board to include parents and teachers in the selection process for a new superintendent, as did schools and district administrators.


Submitted by David Kirwin (not verified) on Wed, Jun 25, 2014

The bond is a non-starter. AUSD & the BOE haven't the community trust to get any amount of bond passed without a clearly laid out plan.

This bond proposal is an incredible over-reach. The BOE even refuses to acknowledge the amount of debt local taxpayers are already burdened with by the last bond measure, or what this bond will actually amount to in repayment dollars Alameda property owners will have to pay to clear the new debt. School parcel tax dollars aside, people should demand to know how much debt there is, how much more this will create, and how the money would be used. Spencer seems to be the only BOE member doing the job of representing and protecting the voters interests.

Submitted by MJ (not verified) on Wed, Jun 25, 2014

David is right. Further, complaining about facilities that have not been properly maintained, while money was squandered elsewhere, is not a strong case for more spending and massive debt.

There was plenty of money for fancy offices, but there just wasn't enough to fix or replace leaky roofs - is that it? There was a king's ransom for an ugly and pointless fence around a beautiful building, but no money for new technology in the class room?

What stands between my son and an excellent education is not the quality of the room he is in (which is fine). Nor will $14 million worth of solar panels make a dimes worth of difference in his education.

Until the BOE and school administration can tell the difference between a need and a want, Alameda schools will remain largely unimpressive.

This BOE is joke and the punch line will be delivered by the voters in November.