Education Lab

Voters would support $225 million Fresno Unified school bond, poll says

The new Hoover High swimming complex was one of many projects paid for by Measure Q in Fresno, Calif. The results of a Fresno Unified School District voter survey on a proposed bond measure for additional facilities improvements were presented to trustees Wednesday, June 15, 2016.
The new Hoover High swimming complex was one of many projects paid for by Measure Q in Fresno, Calif. The results of a Fresno Unified School District voter survey on a proposed bond measure for additional facilities improvements were presented to trustees Wednesday, June 15, 2016. Fresno Bee file

A new $225 million bond measure for Fresno Unified School District would win voter approval, according to a poll conducted in April.

About 75 percent of 600 likely Fresno voters who were surveyed said they would support a bond on the November ballot that aims to upgrade school facilities. More than 80 percent of those surveyed said they recognized a need for more funding in the school district.

The school board has not yet voted to put the bond measure on the ballot, but hired FM3 – a firm based in Los Angeles – to poll the public about potential support.

If passed, the bond would repair and upgrade schools. In the poll, voters identified removing lead paint and asbestos from schools as a top priority, as well as retaining and attracting qualified teachers.

The district has touted that the bond would not increase the current tax rate because taxpayers will have paid off an earlier bond, which means tax rates would remain the same if a new bond was passed.

About $30 million of bonds for Measure Q – a $280 million measure passed in 2010 – remain unissued.

Not everyone is optimistic about the passage of another bond, though. At a meeting Wednesday, Fresno Unified trustee Carol Mills voiced concerns about what she called “the elephant in the room” – an ongoing federal investigation of the district’s use of bond money to pay for no-bid contracts.

“This district has been subject to a lot of negative publicity. Did we really go into that in this polling – to see the impact of that?” Mills asked John Fairbank, principal researcher of FM3.

“Not very deeply,” Fairbank said.

The survey asked voters: “Have you recently read, seen or heard anything about Fresno Unified using a program known as lease-leaseback to build schools?”

Leaseback contracts, which are the focus of the investigation and a related lawsuit against the district, allow school districts to avoid the traditional competitive bidding process when awarding projects to contractors.

About 25 percent of voters surveyed said they knew about the lease-leaseback controversy, and 13 percent said they knew “a lot” about it.

Fairbank said that despite the district’s tumultuous year, the school bond has a good chance of passing. He pointed to Los Angeles Unified, saying it continues to pass billions of dollars in bond measures despite “having the worst reputation of any school board in the state.”

“The language is pretty clear. ... Do the schools need money? Are they going to fix what is needed? (Voters) understand that and support it, generally speaking, regardless of the controversies in the district,” he said. “We have not seen any of these measures defeated in a long, long time.”

Trustee Brooke Ashjian has also been skeptical of the district’s attempt to pass another bond amid the scrutiny. In December, he voted against the board’s move to pay FM3 $40,000 for the polling, saying he would not support a bond measure until he was promised leaseback contracts were a thing of the past.

On Wednesday, Ashjian voiced concern about the district’s use of Keygent LLC – a financial advisory firm that has overseen the district’s bonds and was penalized by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission for “deceptive practices.”

Also at Wednesday’s meeting, Mills voted against a move to use Measure Q money to relocate portable classrooms, because she said that when that bond was passed, relocation of portables was not one of the uses for the funding approved by the public.

“We’re under so much scrutiny, I would rather use another source of funding for that,” Mills said. But Chief Operations Officer Karin Temple said it “passed the test,” and the motion was approved by a 6-1 vote.

Other trustees were pleased by the news of the bond’s approval rate in the survey and were ready to put it on the ballot.

“When you promise something to voters and you deliver it – which we have – they’re proud of their schools. I think this is very reflective and heartwarming,” trustee Janet Ryan said. “When you do what you say you’re going to do, and the voters are pleased with it, they will support you the next time. And this is the next time. I think we would be absolutely foolish with these circumstances if we did not go out for another bond.”

Mackenzie Mays: 559-441-6412, @MackenzieMays

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