Education Lab

Measure Q: Fresno Unified sees hope in bond request

Fresno Unified officials know this is not the best time to ask voters to approve a tax increase.

But they're hoping Measure Q, a $280 million bond measure on the Nov. 2 ballot, will go down a little easier because it would cost property owners about the same as a similar levy that's about to expire.

If approved by 55% of voters, the measure would add about $50 for every $100,000 in assessed value to property-tax bills for at least 20 years -- the exact amount and length of time will depend on market conditions and how the bonds are structured. The measure would raise money to improve all 103 of the district's schools, expand career technical-training facilities and upgrade computers and other classroom technology.

Proponents of the bond suggest this is the perfect time to put it before voters because it would effectively just extend a levy approved in 1977 that funded school facilities improvements in the 1970s and 1980s. The older levy, which cost about $50 per $100,000 of assessed value, is set to expire with the 2010-11 tax bill.

"It's a little over 13 cents a day" per $100,000 of property value, said Fresno school trustee Janet Ryan, who said the district needs to act while construction costs are low.

But a taxpayers association opposing the bond suggests residents could use a financial break.

There is no group specifically organized to oppose the bond measure. But Chris Mathys, manager of the Valley Taxpayers Coalition, said the district needs to stop asking voters to pass bond measures.

"Every time a bond measure comes up, the big selling point is it's only going to be so many years and it will fall off. Then, they come back and ask for another bond measure," he said.

Without Measure Q, the existing levy would expire, saving money for people who are having trouble paying their mortgages, Mathys said. "If we give them relief of $50, that's 50 bucks for food for a week," he said.

Measure Q is Fresno Unified's second bond in less than a decade. The last was Measure K, approved in 2001. It raised $199 million for new school construction and improvements and cost property owners in the district an average of $29 annually over the 20-year payback of the bond, based on home values of about $80,000.

Measure Q would allow Fresno Unified to seek matching funds from the state for the work. Ruth Quinto, the district's assistant superintendent and chief financial officer, said Fresno Unified could receive up to $200 million in state matching funds.

"We are talking an investment into our local community of $400 million to $500 million," she said. Among the planned upgrades: replacing temporary, portable classrooms -- a symbol of aging, overcrowded schools -- with permanent structures.

Other selling points stressed by backers: None of the money would go to pay administrator salaries and none would go to Sacramento.

Some high-profile community members have thrown their support behind Measure Q as part of the "Citizens for Quality Neighborhood Schools" -- a committee promoting the measure and raising money for the campaign.

Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin heads the committee, which also includes Assembly Member Juan Arambula, Fresno County Schools Superintendent Larry Powell, Fresno City Council Member Blong Xiong and Fresno Unified school board trustees Janet Ryan and Larry Moore.

Swearengin said Measure Q is critical because quality schools are important to Fresno.

"It's so central to the transformation of our community," she said. The bond measure would help revitalize neighborhoods and further the economic development of the community, she said.

The district's employee unions also are supporting the bond.

"What people need to realize is that improving schools will boost the property values of the surrounding neighborhoods," said Greg Gadams, president of the Fresno Teachers Association.

The campaign for the bond measure is just now beginning.

A $100-a-ticket Measure Q party was held Thursday night at the Sunnyside-area home of Ahwahnee Middle School Principal Tim Liles. Another campaign event is planned Oct. 14 at The Limelight restaurant. As of Sept. 30, the campaign raised about $110,000, according to recent financial statements provided by campaign consultant Mark Scozzari.

Scozzari said backers are confident the bond measure can pass, even in this difficult economy. "But we have a lot of work to do," he said.

Proponents say local voters may be more likely to support the measure because Sacramento has been cutting state education funding. Voters elsewhere in California have been largely supportive of school bonds. In June, for example, voters passed 15 of 20 school bond measures on ballots throughout California.

School trustee Ryan, a member of the Yes on Measure Q committee, said early polling showed more than 70% of those surveyed supported the bond.

So far, the campaign has been mostly subdued, although the campaign committee began setting out Yes-on-Measure-Q signs this week.

Scozzari said campaign supporters have done a lot of work behind the scenes meeting with community groups. The first of three mailers went out to voters late last week, he said.

Once voters begin to understand the issues facing the district and how the bond will help, Scozzari said: "It just doesn't make sense not to pass it."

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