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Island Talkback: Re-envisioning Alameda’s schools

Submitted by on 1, October 29, 2010 – 4:50 am2 Comments

By Jim Myers

Presented at the September 21, 2010 public hearing on the proposed new parcel tax at Kofman Auditorium.

The fiscal crisis now facing the Alameda Unified School District has been well documented and is likely to result in significant changes to Alameda’s schools – as the AUSD “Plan B” school consolidation proposals indicate.

This is a critical moment of crisis and opportunity not just for the school district, but for the City of Alameda as a whole given the impact the quality of local schools have on housing value, local tax base, business and employee retention and other quality-of-life factors.

If the tough decisions ahead and the new parcel tax are going to gain support, then students, parents, teachers, school district staff and the community at large need to know more than just the negative consequences of this fiscal crisis – the greatest of which appears to be the increased class size, that is more students per teacher.

What also needs to be communicated are the opportunities this crisis presents and how the leadership in Alameda (not just the school board, but also the City Council and mayor, and the Chamber of Commerce) will seize these opportunities to boldly (as Board President Ron Mooney said at the September 14 school board meeting) re-envision education in Alameda.

These opportunities include:

1. Opportunity to Reshape and Redefine Neighborhood Schools

This fiscal crisis presents an undeniable economic reality and the urgency necessary to address the politically challenging but fiscally necessary task of consolidating schools. This is an opportunity that cannot be missed, for without this financial pressure to force change, the cost of maintaining the existing schools will consume greater and greater resources  – resources that are needed for the educational instruction taking place within these schools.

Should the new proposed parcel tax pass, the additional funds may reduce the urgency for or extent of school consolidation for a period of time, but this will not solve the problem or diminish the necessity to consolidate Alameda schools for long-term financial stability.

The age and number of school facilities in Alameda is unfortunately an unsustainable legacy – the decade after decade of school construction to meet the needs then, has now resulted in schools that are too many, too old, too inflexible, too costly to staff, and too expensive to maintain for a community and student population of this size.

For example, in the past five years the district spent $91 million on facilities (2004 – 2009 Measure C facilities bond plus developers fees and state modernization and growth funds) – an amount equal to about half the cost of a new high school. While this work was likely necessary given the outdated facilities (seismic and accessibility upgrades, for example), this demonstrates the significant cost of maintaining numerous existing old school facilities.

School facility costs are a contributing factor in this fiscal crisis – and a lost opportunity to use these resources for other priorities, such as for educational resources and instruction.

Unlike labor costs however, school facility costs can be addressed more quickly and with better funding sources (long-term bonds instead of parcel taxes). Therefore, the solution to the immediate crisis and the long-term fiscal stability must involve changes to school facilities – maintaining the status quo is no longer an affordable option.

If school consolidation is done thoughtfully and strategically in support of an articulated long-term educational plan for a stable and improved school district, then in this context of a better future, these painful short-term changes might be better understood and more bearable by all those impacted.

2. Opportunity to Expand Joint Use Agreements

This financial crisis creates opportunities to expand upon joint use agreements with the city and county to leverage all community resources – libraries, parks, and transit in bold new and creative ways.  Currently joint use agreements allow the schools to use city property, such as parks, and the community to use school facilities such as the pools.

This crisis requires a much bolder approach to community resources (including schools) where the use of facilities and resources benefits the entire community. Schools should be public resources to be utilized outside of school hours by the entire community for classes and recreational activities.

Working together, the leadership in Alameda can better utilize the full range of financial tools – such as school and municipal bonds, redevelopment tax increment financing, economic development grants, etc. – to generate and leverage significant resources. For example, in North Sacramento the new high school includes a major new county library. Other school districts have worked in partnership city and county governments to leverage significant resources and deliver new facilities – so can Alameda.

3. Opportunity to Develop a New World-Class High School and Middle School Campus

This is a perfect time and a great opportunity for the AUSD to obtain bond financing and leverage resources (of approximately $300 million), so that within five to seven years (an aggressive but doable schedule made necessary by this crisis) finance, design and construct one UNIFIED high school and middle school campus – a world-class educational campus.

This is an opportunity for the city and business community to sponsor a design competition to generate alternative designs and possible locations for the campus and redevelopment of excess school property. This is an opportunity for a meaningful community participation process in the design of not just the campus, but in the educational instruction to achieve academic excellence and a well-rounded educational experience including music, theater, art and sports.

This is an opportunity to design and build a campus of attractive, appropriately scaled, cluster of separate facilities around well-designed open common spaces that resemble a beautiful and functional college campus. This is an opportunity to create a campus that can unify a divided community and unite us around what is best in PUBLIC education. A world-class campus that can attract foundations and major corporations as partners in the use of computer technology, energy efficiency and other educational and technological improvements that allow our students to compete on a global playing field. A world-class campus that will retain and draw families back to AUSD for the quality of the education. A world-class campus that will be the source of civic pride, strengthen our housing market, and contribute to business and employee retention. A world-class campus of facilities that are so efficient and cost-effective that we can put our focus and resources where they ought to be – on educational instruction and academic excellence.

4. Opportunity to Save Money and Create Jobs

The AUSD financial crisis within the overall economic crisis provides an opportunity to seize this moment of low finance, design and construction costs to maximize a public investment in new school facilities. Such a public investment also creates jobs at a time when job creation is a key to economic recovery. Projects of this magnitude that generate high-paying jobs often draw additional financial support from other sources, such as union pension fund investments, economic and employment development grants, etc.

5. Opportunity to Redevelop AUSD Property and Generate New Revenue

This long-term plan provides an opportunity for AUSD and the City of Alameda to redevelop school district property after consolidation and the new campus to improve the tax base, strengthen the business districts and generate revenue for the school district. For example, the Alameda High School parcel located in the Park Street-Central business district provides a unique opportunity for economic development by the city and Chamber of Commerce to build upon the success of the theater complex restoration and revitalization, and strengthen an important business district in Alameda.

The fiscal crisis facing AUSD and the significant changes proposed to Alameda’s schools in the “Plan B” alternatives are causing considerable stress, have the potential to divide the community more, and also to drive families and students out of the community in search of better schools.

The depressed housing market and statewide school district problems currently limit most families’ options. The lack of funding to sustain charter schools, even with the incentives provided for charters, appears to make this an unrealistic option in these tough economic times. Even with these considerable constraints, many families are evaluating their options and looking for the exit.

Therefore, it is imperative that the leadership in Alameda articulates a clear vision and a long-term plan for investment in a bold new future for the school district and by extension, the community of Alameda as a whole. Families and the voting public need to know where AUSD is headed, and that sacrifice now will lead to an outstanding and financially sustainable school district, and a bright future worth fighting for together as a community.

Got something to say? Then talk back! Send your op-ed pieces on local issues for consideration, at michele@theislandofalameda.com.


  • dave hart says:

    While some of the ideas you express, such as JUA’s, have great merit & are strongly worth pursuing, it doesn’t appear that you have thought through the financial details of the 300MM megacampus.

    Borrowing 300MM for that new campus would necessitate between 20-30MM per year in debt service, paid by property tax assessments. (Annual amount would vary depending on interest rates, deal structure etc, and would probably come out in the high end of range) Assuming that bond issue would pass, it would have the curious & unintended consequence of damning the schools to increased class sizes and more closures.

    The annual debt service figure is significantly larger than the parcel tax the district has requested to maintain operations at an already reduced level. Measure E, for example, was for approx 14MM. Alameda’s voters strongly support their schools, consistently voting a supermajority for school funding even though that isn’t always enough under current law. Considering that support, assume the bond issue passes, as it only needs 55% rather than the 2/3 that a parcel tax requires.

    If it passes & the new campus is built, teachers still have to be hired and paid. Teacher compensation is already 92% of AUSD’s operating budget, which relies heavily on state funding. That state funding has been dropping sharply and shows no sign of recovery in the forseeable future. Parcel taxes are what will maintain class sizes at managable levels and the property taxes required for debt service will make passing a parcel tax for operations politically impossible. We could end up with a world class campus half used, with classes of 35-40 or more students instead of a fully utilized facility with sensible class sizes. What is the point of that? Disposing of surplus property would help but adavance refundings of bond issues can be tricky and expensive depending on market rates, and in even the most optimistic scenarios (laws re: selling schoold assest are complex & restrictive) would take several years to execute in critical mass.

    It’s a bit like the hybrid/gas guzzler dillemma, where the added cost to purchase a fuel efficient vehicle is greater than the amount saved in gas bills, and the higher car payments crimp other areas of the household budget. Don’t mistake this critique with disagreement. A new campus IS a good idea, and WOULD have long term positive effects, but facilities are not AUSD’s primary budget problem. Education is labor intensive; labor is almost all the budget. Going to the tax well for grand new facilities would almost certainly poison that well for ongoing operations.

  • David Kirwin says:

    Response to Jim Meyers RE: Re-envisioning Alameda’s Schools
    Note to Jim:
    Thank you for putting consideration and thought into our children’s schools and for the time you spent writing your ideas. However there appeared to be no real plan and I would like to ask you what you are thinking of in terms of a plan. First, I would like to point out a few realities: since 2004 AUSD has spent $91 million on facilities, you are correct on that point.
    $ 63 million Measure C funds is a bond to be repaid by property taxes. Measure C also enabled AUSD to gain matching school modernization funds from the state upwards of $12 million and Deferred Maintenance Funds of nearly $2 million. There were also growth Funds ($7.6 m) and developer fees – (The Developer sued AUSD to have fees reduced to under $6.2 million even though the new school cost about $23 million to get built and operational before staff costs & books. (Make your own assumptions about development costs).
    Jim – none of those funds could be used for anything but the non-labor costs of facility maintenance and construction. It was a struggle to pass this Bond for 1/5 of what you propose for a new high school/middle school complex while we are closing schools due to shrinking school population. Also present BOE wants the smallest schools to stay open at any cost. How could you expect them to go with a single HS/JHS campus for 7 -12 grades? Our island is not that small and development has increased driving time so the single school complex seems unreasonable and does not fit my concept of “world class”. What is your idea of “world class”? As higher technology becomes more a part of everyone’s life a complete standardized curriculum could be accessible anywhere there is web access. This could mean a resurgence of fat corporations being able to offer on-site educational facilities to the children of workers. It could mean more home and group schooling modeled on successful charter schools as education and teacher budgets continue to diminish. It could mean any number of changes, none of which support an outrageous $300M investment in a new facility

    I am also interested in knowing your ideas of what the optimum school facility looks like, how the proposed classroom works better than the existing facilities.
    I think the key; the one real necessity to deliver a quality education is simply a motivated student. The enthusiasm in your article seems nonspecific to fault and I would like to understand your ideas beyond the pipe dream of getting $300 million for a single HS/JHS school complex to serve the entire Island City of Alameda. That would be an incredible amount to ask of taxpayers and changing where kids are taught is not an education budget solution – it’s a distraction from the real underlying problems, it is the status quo wish of unresponsive leadership trying to not change the existing bureaucratic system. Of course bureaucratic leaders support an outrageous $300M investment in a new facility – it doesn’t cost them anything but becomes an excuse for not changing ‘business as usual.

    . We obviously need to change how education is delivered not where or what building it should happen in.

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