By BRENNA SWIFT
The Union Democrat
Many Sonora residents have criticized Sonora Union High School District’s decision to use funds from Measure J, the $23 million bond measure passed in November 2012, for a new aquatics center.
Critics say the district misled the public, downplaying omitting mention of a pool when Measure J was put on the ballot.
Union Democrat reporter Brenna Swift sat down with Sonora High Superintendent Mike McCoy this week to discuss the proposed pool project. This is the transcript, edited for brevity.
Q: How did the district decide to use Measure J money for a new pool?
We had a series of stakeholder meetings going back at least a year and a half to a year before the bond.
The district pursued a Proposition 84 grant from the state in cooperation with the county. During that grant-writing process, we found that there was strong student, staff and community interest in repairing or building a new pool.
When that grant process was unsuccessful, we moved forward for a general obligation bond. And as preparation for the bond, we identified a number of different targets for bond funding.
Bond funding should be used for large brick and mortar projects that are beyond the scope of general fund dollars. This would mean, in many districts, construction of new facilities or complete modernization of existing buildings and facilities.
We met with a number of different groups including our most important constituency, our students. In the meetings with community members, students, staff members and parents, the need for a new, modern aquatics center came up over and over again.
Q: What are the other projects being done with bond money?
The district has prioritized the five final projects that were selected by the board based on community comment. Our priority number one is the Humanities Building.
The Humanities Building was built in the late 1970s and has 15 classrooms. It has significant problems with its heating and air system and is not energy efficient. There were also significant concerns with ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) access. This is probably the largest of the five projects that Measure J will support.
The board has also identified the Sonora High School cafeteria as needing significant modernization. The facility was built in 1960, and its kitchen is inadequate. The restrooms need remodeling, and the dining room is outdated and needs flooring, wall, and structural repairs.
The other three projects that are large-scale and large-scope projects would be a new swimming pool and a modernization of the Centennial Building, which has 15 classrooms. It also has most of the computer labs on the Sonora High School campus.
And finally, the district and board would like to complete the work in Dunlavy Field that was started by the Sonora High School Foundation.
Q: Did anyone mention the possibility of an entirely new pool before the bond was passed?
No, because the new pool concept came from our architect. It was our architect’s recommendation after the passage of the bond.
Our new architecture firm came in, they surveyed all our facilities in the district, they looked at the five projects we’d identified. They were the ones that made the recommendation for a new pool based on space and cost estimates.
Their recommendation caught most of us by surprise, but the more we learned about what they were proposing, the more sense that it made. Because by creating an aquatics center where the existing tennis courts are, we solve about three or four different problems.
We’ve got significant problems on this campus with path of travel for the Americans with Disabilities Act. We’ve got significant problems here with handicapped parking.
By moving the aquatics center to that location and changing the configuration of that layout, working with the city and the county on fire lanes, we’re going to solve about three problems with this plan.
With a new pool and trying to fix the old pool, the dollars were too close. If we tried to do something in that pool space, it would have been inadequate, it would have been spatially limited, and the dollars would have been just about close to what the new pool would cost.
Q: Why wasn’t the pool specifically mentioned in the Measure J ballot initiative?
Nothing was specifically mentioned in the ballot initiative other than classrooms, buildings, facilities, energy efficiencies. It was worded in such a way that it gave my (school) board the parameters to work within, to spend the bond money in the best way possible.
So you don’t see the word “Centennial Hall” anywhere in the bond language. You don’t see “Humanities Building.” The Humanities Building is our number one priority, and it’s not mentioned in the bond language because we didn’t know that was going to be our final target.
Q: Do you think you’ve been forthright with the public?
Yes. We have always said the following: That all of the dollars will be spent on brick and mortar projects and that none of the money will go to salaries.
Number two, we have said that we are going to spend the money on long-term legacy projects that will have a long-term positive impact on not only students in Sonora but also in the entire community.
Number three, we have said that we’re going to be good stewards of these dollars and mindful of how they’re spent. We are not going to put money into projects that aren’t necessary or too expensive.
Q: Are you reconsidering the choice to put in a pool?
Absolutely not. We’re committed to the five projects, and they’re projects that our students support, our parents support, and people in the community support.
I could put just as many people in a room that are pool supporters as people who are against the pool. It’s 50-50. There’s a very large, active aquatics community in this city and in this county.
We already are supporting a swimming pool. So when people talk about added costs, we already have those costs in the budget.
The new pool should be more cost-effective. We’ll probably end up, with a modern pool, spending less money on maintenance than we currently do on a pool built in the 1950s.
Q: When will work on Measure J projects start?
We are still working with our architect to develop a construction schedule.
The construction schedule and sequence of work is going to be based on creating construction zones for student safety and also minimizing the number of classrooms that are shut down at any given time — because we do not want to pay for portable housing.
Q: People have reported being surprised that Measure J money is being spent on a new pool. Will there be any more “surprises”?
No, we’re very clear, we’re very transparent. We went through a very long, thoughtful process with input from a lot of community members, especially students, about the best use of these dollars.
And we feel that these five projects are legacies. These are long-term multi-generational facilities on the Sonora High School campus that will be used for years into the future.
I know that people have concerns about their tax dollars and they have concerns about how money is spent, and they just have to be assured that this school board is thoughtful, cautious and works very well together.
Hopefully the bond dollars can be stretched beyond the five projects to do a number of other things, but we know that these five projects will be completed in the next four to five years.