Dave Brooksher

Redwood Times

The Southern Humboldt Unified School District postponed plans to upgrade the library and administrative buildings at South Fork High School during last week's special meeting to re-evaluate priorities for the district's ongoing construction projects. The total estimated cost for this part of the plan came to $2,012,500 including architectural fees and soft costs, but that amount would have exhausted the remaining Measure L bond funds currently held by the district.

Superintendent Catherine Scott said that they still fully intend to complete the postponed project when and if sufficient funding becomes available.

Instead of a new library, the district has moved up plans for technology upgrades and modernization projects in the high school's A wing at a total estimated cost of just $812,360. The SHUSD has roughly $2 million in Measure L bond funds currently available but there is an additional $10 million authorized by Measure L that the district may not be able to access for years to come.

California law limits school bonds to $60 of taxation for every $100,000 in assessed real estate value owned within the district, and the SHUSD's ratio has already reached approximately $57. This is due in part to bond issuances that were authorized ahead of schedule, and sluggish growth in the local real estate market that failed to meet the district's projections.

In order to authorize another round of bond sales, the district will have to seek voter approval to exceed that $60 per $100,000 limit. The alternative would be to wait until local real estate values grow enough to offset the current ratio, and that may take longer than expected if another economic downturn ensues. Either way, the money will not be going as far as originally hoped for when Measure L passed in 2010.

"We've got two million dollars. If we accelerate these sales we'll have the money to move forward," trustee Blake Lehman said. "Without that we're going to end up waiting for years. If we have to sit stagnant for eight or ten years it's not doing anybody any good. The voters already passed this bond, all we're asking is that they accelerate it."

Board president Thomas Mulder has argued that while property tax rates would increase within district boundaries, the bond would be retired at an earlier date, possibly at a lower overall cost to local property owners. It may also enable the district to take advantage of current labor, material and interest costs which could rise in the coming years.

Several people in attendance, including some of the trustees, suggested that the purpose of this special meeting revisiting the district's construction priorities was to package those priorities in a way that voters and taxpayers would find easy to support next year in an election.

Tensions flared briefly during the meeting when trustee Lehman tried to revisit the subject of de-prioritizing the larger and more expensive projects aimed at upgrading the gym and sports facilities at SFHS. That discussion was closed in a contentious split vote at a previous meeting, and in order to re-agendize it for further debate the request would have to come from one of the trustees who voted in the affirmative. So far that has not happened, and the discussion cannot be officially revisited by the board as a matter of procedure.

Lehman and fellow trustee Shelby Messenger have been an outspoken minority in advocating for modernization projects and classroom upgrades for the district's more geographically remote schools, Whitethorn and Casterlin.

"I think we should be building schools and not sporting complexes," Lehman said. "I think we need to downplay the gym and concentrate more on technology and classrooms."

He also called on members of the public to get involved.

Trustee Barbara Lindsay has countered by arguing that since local students generally matriculate into SFHS and Redway School, focusing the district's limited resources on those facilities will impact a greater number of students. 

"I want to see each of the schools get some things, but I think the focus needs to be more on the two biggest schools," Lindsay said. "The populations in the outlying areas fluctuate. They always have. There's no reason to expect that they won't in the future."

The next meeting of the Southern Humboldt Unified School District is scheduled for Dec. 11.