Three school boards in Contra Costa County are deciding how to prioritize construction projects to complete with remaining money from their districts’ voter-approved bond measures.
The Martinez school board’s discussion of about $17.3 million left from its $45 million Measure K bond passed in 2010 made the news last week when an edited video of Trustee Denise Elsken’s comments about air conditioning proposed at two schools went viral. Elsken said she supported air conditioning at John Swett Elementary, but not at Las Juntas Elementary, in part because she believed Las Juntas students are more “acclimated” to heat than students at John Swett.
Elsken based her conclusion on the assumption that about 95 percent of John Swett students have air conditioning at home, while about 95 percent of Las Juntas students do not. However, the video did not include Elsken’s further comments explaining her position.
Unfortunately, the Martinez district’s audio recording of the meeting is of such poor quality that Elsken’s comments about air conditioning cannot be clearly heard. It appears the district placed microphones in front of some trustees and public speakers — but not all — resulting in a recording that is not an accurate record of what happened.
However, based on another recording obtained by a colleague, Elsken reminisced about attending Las Juntas herself and sitting under shady trees on the “eight to ten hot days a year.” She also pointed out that Las Juntas did not rank air conditioning as a high priority.
Elsken said staffers instead preferred other upgrades, including “teaching walls.” The Martinez agenda report listed field renovation at Las Juntas as the only staff priority for the school, with a note from the principal stating: “Field/track has holes that are major tripping hazards.”
Besides discussing specific projects, the Martinez board spent considerable time discussing values, including safety, integrity, education and communication. Trustees plan to continue discussing “equity” on Monday, along with the projects they informally agreed to support March 30, including air conditioning at John Swett Elementary, which was listed as a staff priority.
Equity has also been a hot topic in the Mt. Diablo and West Contra Costa school districts. The Mt. Diablo school board may vote April 20 on several different proposals for issuing $77 million in remaining Measure C bonds voters approved in 2010.
At two study sessions last month, several Mt. Diablo trustees who were not on the board in 2010 said they needed to see updated project lists before they would agree to spend the money. A consultant suggested the board might also want to consider issuing less than $77 million now and waiting until 2016 to ask voters to pass a new bond measure.
The Martinez and West Contra Costa school boards have also begun talking about asking voters to approve new bond measures to finish additional projects.
In an email to some community members after she was widely criticized for her comments, Elsken said that she believes Las Juntas should be torn down and rebuilt within the next 10 years, which would require a new bond measure.
Similarly, the West Contra Costa school district is planning to rebuild several schools, even though the remaining approximately $592 million from $1.6 billion approved by district voters in six bond measures will not be enough to complete them all. The school board recently agreed to update its Facilities Master Plan and to set up a committee to rank projects based on factors such as age, condition and enrollment.
Although the West Contra Costa district has told voters in the past that it wanted to pass new bond measures to provide equitable facilities for all students, it still has a long way to go to meet that goal after 16 years of construction. It has spent millions to provide top-notch facilities for some, while others are still waiting for their turns.
How do you think school boards should prioritize projects?