Atascadero Unified eyes new vote on 2010 bond measure

Atascadero High School
Atascadero High School

Taxpayers in the Atascadero Unified School District may be asked to pay more money now — but over a shorter time period than previously envisioned — to ensure that school improvement projects go forward as planned.

Because the slow economic recovery has yet to significantly improve local property values, the district lacks the funds to undertake major upgrades to school buildings as intended when voters in 2010 passed a $117 million facility-improvement bond.

The district board of trustees is considering reauthorizing the bond to prevent substantially shrinking or delaying projects now in planning stages.

If it takes that step, the board would not be asking for more money from taxpayers in the long run, district Superintendent Deborah Bowers said.

Rather, it would seek to boost the annual tax rate, now capped at $59 per $100,000 of assessed property value, to as much as $120 per $100,000 of assessed value, officials said.

Doing that would allow the district to collect the full $117 million faster and end the tax sooner, they said.

At a meeting Tuesday, the board weighed whether to stay the course or revise plans for future bond dollars. Several board members expressed concerns that postponing projects would dramatically escalate costs.

Measure I-10 authorizes $117 million in bonds to be sold in four series, A through D, and paid off by 2027.

Series A, which was sold in June 2011 for $25.5 million, has so far covered the costs of modernizing Monterey Road Elementary School and Carissa Plains School, as well as replacing the roof of the Atascadero High School gym and making some improvements to the high school girls’ locker room.

With the completion of work on the Monterey Road and Carissa Plains campuses this past fall, Santa Rosa Academic Academy is the next school slated for renovation.

Planned improvements at Santa Rosa, which was built in the late 1950s, include upgraded classroom interiors and a remodeled office building, as well as updated doors, roofs, irrigation, utility systems and accessibility paths. Mechanical and electrical systems will also be revamped.

Work on two classroom buildings began over winter break, with the project scheduled to begin in earnest in March.

To cover costs, the district hopes to use $4.2 million left from Series A and $1.9 million from Series B, which will be sold in June for approximately $33 million, Bowers said.

A massive overhaul of the sexagenarian Atascadero Junior High School, estimated to cost about $31.8 million, is scheduled to begin in 2015. (The entire project would be funded by Series B.)

The sale of Series C, planned for 2017, and Series D, planned for 2018, would provide an additional $58 million to finish renovating Atascadero High School, Del Rio Continuation High School and four remaining elementary schools.

As the situation stands, property values have dropped to the point that they can’t support the sale of Series C and D, district officials said.

“The value of properties in Atascadero did not grow at the rather conservative rate that we anticipated,” said Stu Stoddard, the district’s director of facilities. “(After) a couple years of negative growth, it’s amazing how difficult it is to fund the bond.”

“It was not the fault of the district. There wasn’t any wrongdoing,” Bowers said, just an uncertain economy. “You can look at trends, and you can try to predict them, but you can’t necessarily predict what the economy is supposed to do.”

Reauthorizing Measure I-10 would allow Atascadero Unified to tax voters at a higher annual rate — essentially doubling payments and allowing them to pay off the bond in less time.

The district has yet to evaluate when the end date would be.

“If we’re approved to reauthorize … we will receive monies more quickly than we originally anticipated, and we (will) go through our already set schedule more quickly than anticipated,” Stoddard said, because the district would have more tax money coming in.

The move might even save Atascadero Unified money in the long run, he added, as there would be less interest to pay on the principal.

Plus, Stoddard said, moving up the construction schedule would avoid rapidly rising building costs.

At Tuesday’s meeting, board member Ray Buban compared reauthorization to a homeowner applying for a second mortgage.

“As the homeowner, my payments will go up, but I’ll get all my money. I’ll pay it back sooner,” he said. “To me, it’s a no-brainer.”

His fellow board members agreed.

The board has until May to decide whether to place reauthorization on November’s ballot.

About 62.5 percent of 400 likely voters would support reauthorizing Measure I-10, according to telephone surveys conducted by San Francisco firm Dale Scott & Company between Oct. 21 and Nov. 1.