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School district readies $2.1 billion bond for November ballot

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The San Diego Unified School District board recently approved a $2.1 billion school bond to go on the ballot in November.

The measure proposes the most sweeping improvements to district facilities since Proposition MM passed in 1998.

"If the city wants to have state-of-the-art schools and be able to offer opportunities to district students, this kind of measure is needed," said Jim Watts, director of planning and asset management.

"The way the state funds school districts, if we don't have local bonds, we don't have many resources to keep buildings in adequate shape."

Watts said the district began looking at a bond measure four years ago to update its aging facilities, which are on average 40 years old. Building officials originally wanted to have a measure ready in 2006, but the administration then was focused on other priorities.

The extra time, however, has given San Diego Unified "a really good (chance) at looking very carefully at the needs of the district," according to Watts.

A majority of the funds, if approved, will go toward improving existing schools.

The measure provides $473 million for technology upgrades to support student learning and instruction. The money will enable all of the district's more than 7,000 classrooms to be outfitted with full Internet access via wireless networks (WiFi), overhead projectors, document readers and amplified sound systems.

"We do have a mix" between structural and educational improvements, Watts said, adding, "We want to make sure we do things for educational programs, like the career technical education projects that have been reviewed by the state."

The state would give the district matching funds for the career technical education projects, which include adding an auto body shop and a culinary arts facility for Morse High or an alternative fuel facility in Scripps Ranch.

The bond also includes $501 million for major building systems repair and replacement, which would fix deteriorating plumbing and sewer systems, leaky roofs and outdated and inefficient heating and ventilation systems.

A total of $458 million has been earmarked for school accessibility and code compliance updates, including improvements to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Another $454 million has been set aside for improvements to support health, safety and security. The changes would include replacing obsolete fire alarms, eliminating unsafe student drop-off/pick-up areas and improving pedestrian safety on school sidewalks and in parking areas. It also will go toward helping the district meet increased earthquake/seismic standards in pre-1976 concrete or masonry.

The measure also provides $77.5 million to be allocated for constructing new classrooms and schools as needed for enrollment growth, which could include downtown or Miramar.

Watts said the current administration is "very much behind" the bond.

"The board voted 5-0 (to put it on the ballot)," he said, "and (superintendent) Terry Grier is very active in going out in the public and supporting the bond."

According to Watts, school district officials actually identified $5 billion worth of needs, which would escalate to $7 billion over the duration of the bond. So they tried to focus on the most pressing needs to keep the bond to $2.1 billion.

"This reflected what we can do without increasing the property tax rate," Watts said.

Local contractors and architects likely will see the bulk of the work. Ninety-five percent of the money from Proposition MM stayed in the local community in 1998, he added.

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