Majority of candidates support bond

Challenging economic times face the seven candidates vying for four available seats on the Atascadero Unified School District board of trustees.

In addition to incumbents Donn Clickard, George Dodge and Tami Gunther, who are seeking re-election, the candidates include Ray Buban, an income tax adviser; Bret Heinemann, a businessman/writer; and Gordon West, a retired drywall contractor.

Kenneth Block, a college student, is running as a write-in candidate.

Among the challenges before the school board hopefuls are a crippled district budget, low enrollment numbers and a $117 million school improvement bond measure that would fund what supporters say are much-needed repairs and renovations to aging district facilities.

“We have classrooms that aren’t insulated,” Dodge said. “We have equipment that is so outdated we have to search eBay for the parts.”

If passed, Measure I would fund several renovation projects including repairing or replacing roofs, upgrading sports facilities and updating classroom infrastructure. The district’s facility master plan also calls for building a new performing arts center at Atascadero High School, and renovating or relocating Atascadero Junior High School and the adjoining Atascadero Fine Arts Academy.

Property owners would pay $59 per $100,000 of assessed value per year if at least 55 percent of voters approve.

The bond would replace an expiring tax override, approved by voters in 1976, that currently costs property owners $97.50 per $100,000 of assessed value.

All but one of the candidates expressed strong support for Measure I, with Clickard and Gunther saying they would seek matching funds at the state and federal levels.

Heinemann said he’s “neutral” on the issue.

“It’s a good idea, but I’m not convinced it’s the right idea at this time,” he said, concerned that the bond “will not be as profitable as anticipated” because property values are down.

The debate over the bond measure comes as Atascadero Unified faces $3.7 million in potential cuts from its estimated $33 million annual budget.

The school board voted this spring to lay off seven classified employees and 18 certificated employees. The district also implemented unpaid furlough days for administrators and management staff and an early retirement incentive program.

Gunther described the budget situation as “lean” but “stable,” saying she would support further trims provided they were across the board. Dodge agreed.

“The problem is we do too good a job, and we let Sacramento off the hook,” Dodge said. “The cuts have to be made where they least affect the students.”

Although Atascadero Unified has suffered declining enrollment over the past decade, it appears that downward trend has flattened out thanks to larger kindergarten classes, candidates said.

Buban called that change “the light at the end of the tunnel.”

Asked if there were past school board decisions that they’d like to rescind, Clickard and Dodge mentioned the multiple cuts made in recent years to Atascadero Unified’s foreign language program.

Block mourned the fact that the AVID program, which provides support for students pursuing careers and higher education, is not being offered as a high school elective. (There is, however, an AVID Club, school officials said.)

“I was sad to see that program go,” Block said.

Gunther and Heinemann said they wouldn’t make any changes to past board decisions.

“I think they were good decisions,” Gunther said.

All seven school board candidates praised the district’s achievements in the midst of economic turmoil, pointing to a high graduation rate, steadily improving test scores and dedicated staffers.

“We have one common goal and that’s to do what’s best for the kids,” Clickard said.