Voters consider school renovations in Atascadero

Atascadero voters Tuesday will decide whether a $117 million school improvement bond measure is an essential expense or an unnecessary financial burden.

Opponents argue that Measure I places too much pressure on property owners in trying economic times, but supporters say the Atascadero Unified School District’s crumbling facilities can’t wait any longer for repairs.

“I hope the citizens of Atascadero realize this is a one-time chance to do something for our schools,” school board member George Dodge said.

According to the district’s facilities master plan, published in September, Atascadero Unified is eyeing almost $130 million in facility repairs and renovations over the next decade.

The district expects to receive about $12.5 million in state school facilities funding, developer fees and tax override residuals, with the rest coming from the bond.

If approved by at least 55 percent of school district voters, Measure I would tax property owners annually $59 per $100,000 of their property’s assessed valuation to pay back bonds.

An unrelated tax override approved by voters in 1976 — which annually levies property owners $97.50 per $100,000 of assessed valuation — expires June 30. Tax overrides allow local governments to charge higher property taxes than state law otherwise allows.

Proponents of Measure I say the bond measure is needed because the tax override is soon to expire.

Should the measure pass, Atascadero Unified plans to seek additional forms of funding, said Jackie Martin, assistant superintendent of business services.

On the federal level, the district could apply for up to $25 million in qualified school construction bonds, Martin said, describing those funds as an interest-free loan.

Among the projects proposed under the bond measure are building a $21.6 million performing arts center at Atascadero High School and renovating or relocating Atascadero Junior High School, which stands within the city’s redevelopment area.

Renovating the downtown site, along with the adjacent Fine Arts Academy, would cost about $23.8 million. It would cost more than 48.6 million to build both schools on a new site.

Widespread repairs at Del Rio Continuation High School and seven elementary schools are also planned.

In many cases, Atascadero Unified is simply behind the times, said Stu Stoddard, the district’s facilities director.

Atascadero High opened to students in 1923, and the junior high was originally built in 1947. The majority of the elementary schools were built in the 1950s and ’60s.

Atascadero’s schools face a number of problems related to wear and tear, Stoddard said, including leaky roofs, cracked asphalt, patchy playfields and overtaxed sewage systems.

They have old-fashioned single-pane windows instead of tempered glass, dirt-trapping carpet instead of easy-to-clean rubberized flooring, and swamp coolers and gas heaters instead of up-to-date HVAC units.

“Virtually everyone in the North County has air conditioning and our classrooms do not,” Stoddard said.

He said the district could see savings of 20 percent in heating, cooling and lighting costs by switching to more energy-efficient options. Atascadero Unified spends about $750,000 annually on gas and electricity, he said.

Most elementary school classrooms — built decades before the digital age — have just one or two electrical outlets, Stoddard said, making it difficult to accommodate the computers, printers, projectors and other equipment used by today’s teachers.

Accessibility for disabled students and staff is another issue, Stoddard said. There’s no wheelchair-access ramp leading from Monterey Road Elementary School’s classrooms to its playfields, and Atascadero High’s two-story B building doesn’t have an elevator.

“When we envision modernization for a campus, we’re looking at what is appropriate for modern teaching techniques and the health and safety of students and staff,” Stoddard said. “We can certainly put together a better classroom than we could 25 years ago, a more efficient classroom.”