Imagine for a moment that you’re Superintendent of Schools Robin Hopper.
You oversee the Mariposa County Unified School District, and you’ve got $24 million in funds to spend on improving the aging infrastructure of county schools, thanks to the Measure L bond passed by Mariposa County voters in 2016.
Sounds great, right? And it is, in many ways. It’s a chance to give area students the quality facilities they deserve.
But then you realize you only get $8 million of that bond every few years, and you have to spend it on immediate needs first. But on top of that, just about everyone in the community has an opinion on how the money should be spent.
Some feel it should be spent on a new football stadium, or to build a new gymnasium. Others want it spent on new construction projects as opposed to modernizing current facilities.
But there’s only so much that can be done with $24 million, and it’s important to measure the benefits and negatives of each decision before making a move.
Oh, and one other thing. Even though California voters also passed an additional state-wide bond to improve school facilities, no one is sure when the promised funds from that bond will actually be distributed. Close to $6 million in additional bond funding that was expected to be issued to MCUSD might not come for years, which makes it that much harder to plan out a long-term vision for improving the school district.
Still following along? One final thing. A number of the projects that you’d like to initiate must go through the Division of State Architects (DSA), which has stringent requirements for completing projects — meaning investing more time and money into projects.
Feeling a bit stressed by now?
“(It’s important to) go in well prepared and having done your homework,” said William Brandle, facilities and maintenance director for MCUSD.
Brandle said the district must make “well researched decisions.”
Both Brandle and Hopper sat down with the Gazette for an exclusive interview about the latest steps in the process of moving forward with the bond.
Projects aren’t always sexy
While it would be nice to immediately jump into construction of new buildings, that wasn’t as pressing of a priority for the district as patching up classrooms desperately in need of repair.
Some of the biggest projects done so far with bond funds have been improving the roofing at school sites, including Mariposa County High School, Woodland Elementary and Sierra Foothill Charter School. (See a full list of bond projects and expenditures on page B-4.)
And, as Hopper says, roofing projects “aren’t sexy.” They aren’t projects that will catch people’s eyes, but they are projects that need to be completed to provide safe environments for children to learn in.
“Those are the immediate plans and we’ve prioritized those,” Hopper explained.
Shown is another view of the roof construction taking place at MCHS. Submitted photo
This summer, in fact, the roof of one section of MCHS is being improved. A few years ago, the auditorium roof was improved, and this year, the improvements are being made to the main building.
Other projects soon to be completed include the science wing at MCHS, the gymnasium roof and the girls locker room.
“Those are things we need to get off the ground right away,” Brandle said.
SFCS in Catheys Valley is also set for roof repair on classroom buildings.
Some of the other major projects thus far have included new HVAC installation at various sites.
Hopper said she wants the public to know “we do have plans and are going to start moving on projects at every (individual) school site.”
Beware of analysis paralysis
Hopper said managing the bond process is a careful balance between making patient, thought-out decisions, and avoiding what she calls “analysis paralysis.”
Analysis paralysis means becoming “paralyzed” by the daunting decisions needing to be made, and analyzing them too much to the point where no progress is made.
“You can’t over-analyze everything,” Hopper said.
With every year that passes, the cost of construction and labor rises in California, adding to the pressure to make decisions quickly.
Another issue is that the district must pay prevailing wages for construction projects, which drives up costs even more.
“It’s very difficult for a public entity,” Hopper said.
Simply put, the district and school board members — in tandem — need to take their time to make sure the bond funds are spent in a responsible, prudent manner, but must also avoid spending too much time beating the issues to death, so to speak.
The most important thing of all is to make sure the projects benefit the students.
“Their health, safety and welfare have to be paramount,” Hopper said.
Long range plans
Hopper said another aspect of the bond process is working “simultaneously” on short-term and long-range plans.
For example, Hopper would love to have a football stadium constructed. The football team at MCHS currently plays in the Gold Bowl at the Mariposa County Fairgrounds. It doesn’t have a permanent stadium on the high school campus to call home.
She said the district is considering a new stadium, but it’s likely a long ways off.
“We are looking at that and planning those (types of projects),” Hopper said. “We have that vision. … Our kids deserve it. We are aiming for that. But they also deserve classrooms that are not moldy.”
It would also be nice, of course, to have a new track and a new baseball field or a new basketball arena as well.
“I ran that track and I swear it was the same dirt under my feet,” Hopper, a former student in MCUSD, said.
The district is factoring all of those ideas into its discussions about the bond spending process, but the first priority is improving classroom facilities.
“You can’t have leaky roofs but then start building a stadium,” Hopper said.
It is important for district personnel and school board members to create a plan that addresses the short-term needs and long-range vision for the district. The district does have a long-range facility master plan.
Moving forward with optimism
Although it has been a stressful process of deciding how to manage the bond money alongside the school board members, for Hopper, the most important thing is the district has the chance to use the money, thanks to local voters. Having $24 million is a lot better than not having any bond funds.
“I am thrilled and thankful to the community for supporting our schools the way they do, especially throughout this bond process,” Hopper said. “Let’s focus on how exciting it is with what we get to do and can do.”