Oakland Unified’s school board voted unanimously Monday night to place a $735 million construction bond measure on the November ballot to upgrade aging facilities.

The funds would go toward over 20 projects at more than a dozen schools and include such things as new classrooms, kitchens, transforming a vacant school into a new administrative building and replacing restrooms that, according to one parent, students refuse to use because they are considered “foul.” 

“The need in Oakland is not unique,” said school board President Jody London. “Every school in the state, every district in the state, has the same problem — that we have not as a state or even as a country invested well enough in our schools.”

The measure would only cover about one-fifth of the $3.4 billion the district has identified for needed repairs, modernization and facilities expansions. The board could not seek more than $735 million due to laws that cap both the amount homeowners can be assessed and the total amount of outstanding debt the district is allowed to have.

Because of these limits, board members struggled to narrow the list of projects to be funded. They based their shortlist on several factors, including safety and projects from a previous bond measure in 2012 that were never built. The district also would consider school consolidations or other projects not yet identified, as well as districtwide improvements such as plumbing, electricity and other upgrades at several unnamed schools.

Tax on homeowners

Homeowners will be asked to spend $55 to $60 per $100,000 of their assessed home value on property tax bills through 2049-50 to pay off the bond, which will total about $1.4 billion including principal and interest. The new assessment would be in addition to taxes property owners are already paying for previous district bond and parcel tax measures.

According to a board presentation by Josh Daniels, the district’s general counsel, voter polls in the district showed that more than 70 percent of voters were likely to support a bond measure for safety upgrades, distance learning, career technical education and child development centers. 

The board agreed on a dozen specific projects to be funded with about $395.5 million. These included upgrades and expansions of seven schools, plus a new $50 million administrative building that would allow central office staff to move out of leased downtown office space. There are also funds for new kitchens at three schools including a cafeteria at one, estimated to cost a total of $22 million. About $15 million has been set aside for a new alternative education and administrative building.

The board also agreed that about $200 million could be used to fund districtwide safety repairs and possible improvements based on COVID-19 requirements at dozens of schools throughout the district. An additional $10 million could be used for school expansions or other new projects, and about $130 million would need to be set aside for contingencies and construction management.

These cost estimates used by the board were based on the district’s Facilities Master Plan, but are not binding, since they are not included in the bond measure language. If the measure passes, the board — which will include four new members who will replace incumbents not seeking reelection — will develop a spending plan and timeline for projects as they move forward.

London and other board members lamented the loss of a statewide $15 billion school construction measure in March, which could have helped fund projects in districts throughout California.

Board member Jumoke Hinton Hodge, who represents Oakland Unified in the Council of the Great City Schools nationwide network of large districts, said federal legislation called the “Rebuild America’s Schools Act” has been proposed in Congress that could help fund school construction.

The board reduced the amount of money staff had estimated should be spent on the new administrative building in order to set aside $21 million for other projects they considered priorities. These trade-offs concerned some board members, who worried that less spending on the administrative building may not provide enough money to completely move staff out of the leased office space. But board member Shanthi Gonzales said the district could save money by moving some district office staff to vacant space at schools if there wasn’t enough money to put them all in one central district office.

School district Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell said she understood the board’s difficulty in finalizing a project list due to “limited funds, exorbitant need and multiple goals.” She said high-quality schools are “a driving force” behind parents’ decisions to enroll their children in the district.

She also acknowledged “tension points” around equity, noting that 77 percent of students are low-income, and said the board was attempting to invest in visions for the future, while also finishing up projects that were promised in the past. And she supported a large set aside for unnamed districtwide initiatives.

‘Our buildings are so old’

“Our buildings are so old,” she said, “we don’t know what a need may be in four to five years.” She also warned that there could be a “decrease in service” from district office staff if they are spread out in schools throughout the city instead of being consolidated into one administration building.

“They’re all difficult decisions,” Johnson-Trammell said, “because we serve kids and none of us wants to say ‘no’ to a particular project.”

Some board members expressed concern that the recent downturn in the economy due to the coronavirus could jeopardize the bond measure’s ability to pass. But more than 25 callers who spoke during the Zoom meeting supported the bond measure.

A majority of the voters surveyed in the polls referred to by Daniels back in the fall and early spring said they would support a bond. However, some expressed concern about a “perceived history of misuse of funds,” the high cost of living in Oakland and using funds for an administration building, according to a June 24 board presentation.

* Editor’s Note: As a special project, EdSource is tracking developments in the Oakland Unified and West Contra Costa Unified School Districts as a way to illustrate some of the challenges facing other urban districts in California. West Contra Costa Unified includes Richmond, El Cerrito and several other East Bay communities.

Story originally published by EdSource.