Sonora Union High School District students have been going to class in decades-old facilities that could be greatly improved if voters approve a $23 million bond measure in November, according to school administrators.
Meanwhile, Summerville Union High School District is attempting to pass its own $8 million initiative — one that would extend Measure Q of 1998 and fund renovations to its most outdated classrooms.
Administrators and school board members from both districts have said the bond measures are their only chance to fund badly needed improvements, since state funding has been severely cut in recent years.
“We won’t come back 20 years later asking for money,” said Sonora High Superintendent Mike McCoy. “It’s a long-term investment. It’s going to be here 100 years from now.”
The money to repay the school bonds will come from property taxes.
If passed in November, Sonora High’s Measure J would raise annual property taxes by $22 per $100,000 of assessed home value.
The conditions of Summerville High’s bond differ, with the new property taxes taking effect only after those from the $9.9 million Measure Q begin phasing out in 2023.
The current annual tax rate for Measure Q is about $40 per $100,000 of assessed value. After 2023, the rate would start going down until it reaches about $30 per $100,000 under the new Measure H.
Sonora Union High School District covers Sonora, Jamestown, Curtis Creek, Soulsbyville, Columbia and Belleview school districts. Summerville High includes Summerville Elementary and Twain Harte-Long Barn school districts.
Both Summerville High and Sonora High’s bonds need a “supermajority” of at least 55 percent voter approval to pass.
By law, school districts cannot spend money from bond measures on administrator salaries, operating expenses or any needs not related to “brick and mortar” projects.
The law also requires the spending of bond money to be supervised by an independent citizens’ oversight committee, which makes recommendations to each district’s board of trustees.
Over the past several months, McCoy has met with groups of students, parents and community members to formulate a list of priorities for potential bond money.
First priority is the entire humanities building, identified by the community as the “worst of the worst.” Next are the cafeteria and kitchen. Turning the library into a modern school media center is third priority, followed by renovations to the science building and Centennial Hall.
A new agriculture facility is another possibility. Farther down the list are technology improvements for the campus, then a stadium track and aquatics complex.
“One of the things I noticed is that students take more pride in their school if they have something that’s kind of nice,” said Marta Houghton, a 16-year-old Sonora High senior.
For new bond projects, Sonora High’s Board of Trustees intends to use local labor and supplies when possible.
In response to a frequent criticism aimed at Sonora High, McCoy added that the district has reduced its administrative expenses by $400,000 — or 30 percent — since 2007. This was accomplished by consolidating positions and moving the district office from The Dome building on Barretta Street.
The district has lost about $1 million in state funding every year since 2007 and endured four successive years of layoffs, McCoy said.
As for Sonora High’s property on Tuolumne Road, which is being turned into a “Wildcat Ranch” for agriculture and science classes, McCoy said selling the property for money is not feasible.
“There’s not a lot of interest or value in selling that land,” McCoy said. “You’d be selling and taking a loss and we’re not willing to do that.”
Summerville High’s ballot initiative would extend Measure Q for an additional 15 to 20 years. After the passage of Measure Q in 1998, the district also received $3 million in state funding for modernization projects.
An extension for Measure Q could make Summerville eligible for more state improvement money, said Summerville Union School District Superintendent John Keiter.
The benefits reaped from Measure Q include Summerville High’s new theater, which eliminated the need for drama teachers to arrange rehearsals around the lunch schedule in the cafeteria.
Before the new library was built with bond measure money, the library was part of a classroom partitioned off with plywood. The bond money also paid for energy upgrades on three of the campus’ 1964 buildings.
“It made a big difference,” Keiter said of the upgrades. “You don’t notice it’s winter (in the buildings) anymore.”
The extended bond measure would allow Summerville to continue improving the campus, since money from Measure Q didn’t cover all the necessary changes. Technology needs have also changed in the interim, Keiter said.
Keiter said a prioritized list of improvements would be drawn up if the new bond measure passes. The last time Summerville High proposed an extension to Measure Q in 2010, it was voted down by a slim margin.
“We had people who were concerned previously, and we want to make sure they’re not concerned again,” Keiter said. “We tried to be very conservative this time and not over-promise. We want to get as much done as possible.”
Both Sonora High and Summerville High are working with Isom Associates, a Walnut Creek-based consulting firm, to prep for the ballot measures.
Isom is paid fees if each bond measure passes. McCoy said he didn’t know the exact amount of the fees for Sonora High. In Summerville High’s case, they would be between $60,000 and $70,000.
So far, no opponents of Sonora High’s Measure J have made their opinion heard at Sonora High board meetings. In June, Mi-Wuk Village resident Jerry Morrow asked Summerville High’s board not to place a bond measure on the ballot.
Morrow has since filed an argument against Summerville High’s Measure H with the Tuolumne County Elections Office. He said Measure Q of 1998 cost him about $75 in taxes last year.
“If it was better times and everyone had jobs and was doing better, I would get behind it and say yes,” Morrow said. “We need to come up for air as taxpayers.”
But both McCoy and Keiter said they were optimistic about the separate ballot initiatives passing.
“There’s strong support for the bond,” McCoy said. “Once people understand the safeguards in place, they support it. Are you willing to support high school students? If you are, this is the way to do it.”
Keiter said he felt the political climate has changed since 2010, when the first proposed extension to Measure Q failed at the polls.
“I think a lot of the ‘yes’ voters stayed home (in 2010),” he said. “I don’t think they’re going to stay home again.”
What schools need
Sonora High has several buildings constructed in 1939 under the federal Works Project Administration, which employed laborers on public works projects during the Great Depression.
They include the stadium and auditorium, and Centennial Hall, which is used for English and computer science courses.
There have been no major overhauls to the facilities since they were built in the days of Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Board of Trustees President Ed Clinite and Superintendent Mike McCoy have said they can find no evidence that Sonora High has received bond issue funds in the decades since.
Among the more pressing renovation needs at Sonora High are:
The humanities building, built in 1970 and identified by the community as most problematic of all for its construction.
A room on the first floor of the humanities building that houses the district’s phone system, computer servers and irrigation controls, all beside a pile of dirt without flooring.
The kitchen and cafeteria, built in 1960 and undersized for Sonora High. McCoy would like to turn the cafeteria into a food court like Summerville High’s Bear Rock Cafe. Employees have difficulty moving around the cramped kitchen, which serves about 1,000 students a day.
Centennial Hall’s heating, ventilation, plumbing and electrical systems, which all date from 1939.
Summerville High has already seen the benefit of a $9.9 million bond measure, which paid for a new theater, library and renovations to older classrooms.
But the money wasn’t enough to address all the needs on campus, said Summerville Union School District Superintendent John Keiter.
Among the renovation needs at Summerville High are:
The art classroom, which dates from 1964 and doesn’t have enough space to accommodate students and art supplies. Student demand for art classes has increased so much this year that two new classes have been added.
Portable buildings reaching the end of their lifespan.
Outdated computers and technology.
A sports field that needs safety improvements.
Upgrades to parking lots, sidewalks, restrooms and other facilities to make them compliant with Americans with Disabilities Act requirements.