Back to school on the Peninsula: School bonds pay off 

Teenagers who have been sweating it out at Aragon High School in San Mateo are in for a nice, cool treat this year. Children at Monte Verde Elementary School in San Bruno won’t have to worry about roof leaks when the rainy season starts. And students at Woodside High School may spend next semester toying in a new robotics lab.

As students return to school in San Mateo County, they’ll get the first look at a multitude of improvements that were put into place during the summer, as districts spent some of the hundreds of millions of dollars they’ve been granted by voters in recent years.

School bonds have proven popular — if occasionally contentious — in the county. Of the 24 school districts in San Mateo County, 22 currently have bonds on the market, all approved by voters, said Porter Sexton, a spokesman for the county Office of Education.

Since 2005, more than $1 billion in school bond measures — which add an extra tax on properties within a district — has been approved by county voters. Most have been approved by a two-thirds majority of voters or, in a few cases, by a 55 percent majority.

Bonds are schools’ primary tool to make large-scale improvements to their facilities, because operating budgets rarely have room for such expenditures, Sexton said.

Much of the construction funded by bonds is done during the summer, when students are gone, said David Miller, superintendent of the San Mateo Union High School District.

“I’m really excited — we’re doing about $30 million worth of construction this summer,” he said. “The big one is putting air conditioning in three of our schools. That’s been a long time coming.”

As it stands, county property owners are paying down a total of about $65 million per year in bonds for public schools — about $24.5 million of which is for capital, the rest is interest, Deputy Controller Kanchan Charan said.

School bonds have not been free of controversy. A civil grand jury report issued in July charged that in the last three years, seven school districts refinanced bonds to pay for additional repairs, leaving voters on the hook for about $15 million that they never approved.

Also, a $298 million bond granted to San Mateo Union High School District by voters in 2006 was the subject of three civil grand jury investigations that found the funds were mismanaged — problems the district said it has fixed.

Though administrators at schools countywide worried that voters would be more reticent to pass additional school bonds after the problems surfaced at a few districts, five out of six school bonds on the ballot in February or June of this year passed.

Parent Bruce Solomon, whose son attends Carlmont High School in Belmont, said that the voting record reflects a community made up mostly of families who care about their kids’ education. He said he’s been happy to vote for bond measures when he’s had the chance.

“They’re building a magnificent performing arts center at Carlmont and another one at Menlo-Atherton, which I drive by every day,” he said. “I think it’s good for the community and it’s good for the kids. It asks them to do more than just go to school and memorize homework. It’s about learning, stretching, becoming part of the community.”

kworth@sfexaminer.com

Learning the ropes

A sampling of improvements San Mateo County students can expect to see when they return to school as a result of bond money approved by voters in recent years.

  • New air conditioners at Aragon, Hillsdale and Mills high schools
  • Modernized band building at Sa*Mateo High School
  • Work on new performing-arts centers at Menlo-Atherto*and Carlmont high schools
  • Renovated tennis courts and 20 renovated classrooms, including a*art studio and a darkroom, at Sequoia High School
  • Upgraded science wing — including a robotics room, a health sciences room and a career technology center — at Woodside High School
  • A 5,000-square-foot modular building at El Camino High School to replace dilapidated portables
  • Repaired roofs at Buri Buri and Monte Verde elementary schools and Parkway Heights Middle School
  • Fixed heating and air-conditioning systems at Westborough Middle School
  • Renovated weight room at South Sa*Francisco High School
  • Two modular classrooms at Las Lomitas Elementary School
  • New fields, tracks and stands at Jefferso*and Terra Nova high schools
  • New track and football field and refurbished baseball field and softball diamond at Jefferso*High School
  • New track and field facility and refurbished cafeteria, art room, drama room and auto shop at Terra Nova High School

By the numbers

  • 88,479 Students in San Mateo County, K-12
  • $800 million Annual expenditure
  • $15,959 Expenditure per child in highest-spending district in county*
  • $6,736 Expenditure per child in lowest-spending district in county*
  • $67,030 Average teacher salary
  • 4,787 K-12 teachers
  • 173 K-12 schools in San Mateo County
  • 24 K-12 school districts

* District not identified by county

Source: San Mateo Union High School District, Sequoia Union High School District, South San Francisco Unified School District, Las Lomitas Elementary School District, Jefferson Union High School District

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Katie Worth

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Tuesday, Oct 23, 2018

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