FREMONT -- A debate has emerged over the $650 million school bond measure on the June ballot, with district leaders saying it's necessary to modernize aging campuses and opponents calling it a financially risky move that won't address half of the district's many needs.
The informal group, led by Fremont resident Kathryn McDonald, says it wants to help the district fix its estimated $1.6 billion in campus needs but finds Measure E an inadequate solution. McDonald instead wants housing developers, not taxpayers, to pay more for the increased traffic and student enrollment their developments bring.
Developers are paying $5.27 per square foot this year, garnering about $2 million, said James Morris, Fremont's superintendent of schools. The developers' fund, primarily spent on portable classrooms, is a fraction of the district's $278 million budget for 2014-15.
The $650 million bond measure would be Alameda County's largest, and the interest over 38 years could raise its ultimate cost to about $1.75 billion.
If approved in June, Measure E would cost property owners an annual maximum of $59 per $100,000 of assessed value, pushing payments for it and an earlier bond to more than $89 per $100,000 annually.
Opponents worry the measure's financial projections are too rosy, as they count on Fremont home assessed values to grow by 4 percent yearly after 2015.
"What if those assumptions aren't right?" asked McDonald. "They might lock us into something we can't afford."
Morris said the district put the bond on the June 3 ballot because it can't afford to wait any longer. The bond money would be used to update Fremont's 42 aging campuses, renovating science and computer labs, upgrading plumbing and restrooms, repairing faulty wiring and dry-rotted roofs, and other work.
Crews also would remove the last traces of asbestos remaining from past renovations, Morris said. "When you open up walls to put in wiring in an old school, sometimes you'll find asbestos inside the walls," he said.
Also on the bond agenda: replacing deteriorating portable classrooms, some of which were intended as a five-year solution, but instead have been used for 20 years, Morris said.
A $39 million upgrade of the schools' technology infrastructure and equipment is one of the district's top goals. The tech upgrades include increasing bandwidth, adding electrical outlets and data cables, and creating wireless access points so that students can use computers at today's fast pace, Morris said.
"Five years from now, every textbook will be an electronic textbook," he said. "So while we might have the capacity now for 150 kids to be online at the same time, five years from now we'll need five times that capacity."
Those upgrades are long overdue for the district's 33,000 students, Morris said. "We're in the business of creating a quality education for our kids," he said. "Technology is such a big part of a 21st-century education."
But bond opponents say they would like Fremont Unified to create a Mello-Roos district -- an area where property owners agree to pay a special tax for schools and other community services -- to finance campus improvements. Creating such a taxing district requires a two-thirds approval of voters.
Another criticism in the group's flier -- "Ten Reasons Not to Vote for Measure E" -- is that the district is setting aside more than $200 million of the $650 million bond for inflation and cost overruns, McDonald said.
"If someone said they wanted to renovate your house but you'd have to pay a lot more than the price tag because they expect overruns would you do it?" she asked. "It's a completely insane idea."
However, district leaders say they set aside roughly the same portion of money -- around 30 percent -- for contingency spending for Measure B, a $157 million school health and safety bond voters approved in 2002. The oversight committee for that bond praised the district for spending the money well and completing renovations on time and on budget. Morris said the district is using the same approach with Measure E.
Setting aside that much money for inflation and overruns is not uncommon, said Bill Jakel, a retired auditor at East Side Union High School District in San Jose. "We usually set aside 10 percent, so it's higher than we did, but 30 percent seems reasonable if you're counting both inflation and cost overruns," said Jakel, a Board of Advisors member of the California League of Bond Oversight Committees. "With renovations, you can find surprises -- the old blueprints might be wrong, pipes are in wrong locations, you never know."
Another bond opponent, longtime Fremont resident Bill Spicer, said those taxes will hurt senior citizens living on fixed incomes. "To ask us to pay for more and better schools is not fair," he said, noting that he has been paying for school bonds since 1959. State law permits senior citizen exemptions for parcel taxes, school officials said, but not bond measures.
A district poll in January of likely Fremont voters found 60.6 percent would support a $650 million bond to renovate schools -- well above the 55 percent needed for approval.
McDonald said she sympathizes with the need to renovate old campuses, but said she believes a Mello-Roos district and making developers pay more would help more than Measure E.
"We really want what's best for the schools and the community," she said. "But we want to move forward in a way that makes more sense than this measure."
Contact Chris De Benedetti at 510-353-7011. Follow him at Twitter.com/cdebenedetti.
1. It will improve student learning by modernizing schools' Internet infrastructure and other technological upgrades.
2. It will make the district's 42 campuses safer by removing asbestos, replacing faulty electrical wiring, and other repairs for aging buildings.
3. Improving the district's campuses will boost Fremont's property values.
Source: Fremont Unified School District
Con measure E
1. The bond is written to sound as if all bond funds will be spent on campus renovations, but more than $200 million is being set aside for inflation and overruns.
2. Measure E would extend payments on district bonds through 2051 but would leave more than half of the district's $1.6 billion of needs unaddressed, requiring more bonds to fix those problems.
3. The bond provides no senior citizen exemptions, hurting longtime homeowners living on a fixed income.
Source: Kathryn McDonald
Fremont school needs
More information about the Fremont Unified School District's facilities needs and their expected costs can be found online at www.fremont.k12.ca.us/Page/24615.