Sea level raised in
school bond discussion

06/19/2014

The Bolinas-Stinson Union School District may float a general obligation bond up to $13.7 million on the November ballot to renovate facilities and possibly expand its campuses with new construction.

During an hour-long discussion at last week’s meeting, trustees deliberated whether the upcoming election was the right time to ask voters for funds. District residents currently have no outstanding bond obligations and interest rates have lowered, two incentives to invest in long-term planning now, said Cyrus Harmon, a board member on the Fiscal Oversight & Facilities Planning Advisory Committee. But two other trustees were wary, questioning whether the board had articulated its vision and considered the distant threat of sea-level rise before asking taxpayers for funds.

A bond had been proposed in 2012, but the board rejected a ballot measure because the process felt rushed, with “neither sufficient community input or involvement nor time available for proper consideration,” Mr. Harmon said. “There was a lot of pressure to get something done really quickly. We have been slowly letting this idea percolate over the past two years and begun a gradual increase in the discussion.”

A survey taken by four out of five district employees identified 13 areas that a majority said needed significant improvement or were nonexistent. Many expressed interest in a multi-use facility for physical education or dance and drama performances, a science lab and an outdoor classroom and the need for technological upgrades throughout the schools. Added space, particularly for storage and teacher meetings, was also a unifying concern. 

As district enrollment has held steady—and will increase next school year to 122 students—overcrowding at the Stinson Beach campus led to the eviction of the preschool and its move to a portable classroom, an adjustment that has still not been approved due to problems with a setback from a drainage ditch. A general obligation bond would fund projects defined in a 75-word ballot proposition that are beyond the scope of the regular $3.7 million annual revenue.

Teachers and staff rated the Quesada—a room historically used for occasional P.E. classes, assemblies, plays and ballroom dancing and conga lessons—as needing improvement in seven of eight categories. “This is currently a room from the Dark Ages!” one respondent wrote. Low-ceilinged with an unforgiving concrete floor, the building was described as dark and without natural lighting; bursting with janitorial supplies, chairs and tables, a piano and other equipment; and too tiny for sports or permanent seating. “A thoroughly unpleasant space,” another wrote. An overhaul funded by the bond could see a dedicated theater, gymnasium or more accommodating multipurpose room.

Other smaller improvements mentioned included the need for handicap accessibility throughout the campus, leveling and resurfacing the basketball court and fields that are now “a duck pond in winter,” an intercom system, more drinking fountains, additional and greener bathrooms that currently seem “nasty, cold, damp, smelly, drafty,” air conditioning in the classrooms, new kitchen equipment that now whirs so loudly as to disturb the staff, functional blinds and flashing crosswalks or speed bumps.

“At a high level, we’re going to identify the things that we’re going to do, but it’s not going to be exactly spelled out when we go to the voters,” Mr. Harmon said. “We’re not going to decide how many extra square feet are going to science classrooms versus art shops. We’re not going to figure out how big a play area would be, or a gym, or a garden. We’re going to tell voters the kinds of things that they’re authorizing us to spend the money on.”

But are the current campuses the best place to invest in light of expected sea-level rise, trustee Jennie Pfeiffer asked.

Mr. Harmon—who clarified that he doesn’t consider himself “a climate expert”—presented a range of estimates on sea-level rise. By 2070, three-quarters of a meter or a full meter of water could be expected to encroach on the town. By 2100, the higher waters could put Bolinas-Olema Road and Highway 1 deep underwater, but the campuses would be on high ground above the shore. (In the worst scenarios, storms could pool water in the parking lot at the Bolinas campus and strand students from the towns.) 

Taking such a long-term view of disaster preparedness, planning for a time when current students would be enjoying retirement, was almost a laughable exercise. “Good thing we didn’t pave the parking lot,” trustee Nate Siedman chuckled, and “There goes [Principal] Elaine [Doss] in a watertube!” joked Larry Enos, the outgoing superintendent, as he pointed at the flood maps. But these considerations are necessary when asking for voters to contribute bond payments for decades, Ms. Pfeiffer argued.

“I would like to see, before we schedule this on the ballot, that we sort of know where we’re headed,” she said. “Before we start a roadmap of where we’re headed, we should look at the full map to see what all our options are. We shouldn’t just limit it to where we are right now, which we know is eventually not going to be the best place for it.”

She asked that the community survey include questions about whether residents would support the Bolinas campus shifting up to the Big Mesa, possibly beginning with a community gym built together with the Mesa Park board. Mr. Harmon pointed back to the data to suggest relocation plans were not an urgent issue for another century, but Steve Marcotte, another trustee, said the board should have a conversation with an eye on the future before approaching the public.

“I think we’re putting the cart before the horse. Who makes the decisions about spending money? The board. Who makes the decisions about the general direction the school should go? The board. When are we going to sit down and have a discussion like Jennie’s trying to have now about our needs and our wants?” Mr. Marcotte asked. “I don’t think that the school district should go out, secure money and then decide what they can do.”

Mr. Enos said that, based on his past experience, most decisions are made after a bond has been secured in consultation with architects and engineers to see what is economically feasible. 

Arianne Dar, the board president, added that trustees should at least gather input through the community survey to inform their long-term plans. “I’m not going to decide the second grade curriculum. I’m not a second grade teacher. I’m going to ask the second grade teacher, what do you want in terms of curriculum?” Ms. Dar said. “And the same is true for thinking about improving our facilities. We go first to our staff and the people who are in the school: What do you need? We then go to the community and say, ‘Here’s what our teachers say. How do you feel about what they’re saying they need?’”

The board decided to move ahead with a community survey to follow-up on the needs staff have identified. At the next meeting they will weigh those results and then decide whether to submit a ballot measure before the county’s deadline on August 8.