District compelled to act fast on new junior high

cpride@losbanosenterpriseOctober 10, 2013 

The Los Banos Unified School District must act quickly to maintain funding levels for a new junior high to ease massive overcrowding.

Built for 900 students, Los Banos Junior High School recorded 1,570 as of last week. To pay for a new facility, district officials can access nearly $10 million in funding left over from the $44 million 2008 bond used for the construction of Pacheco High School. However, state Assembly Bill 182 decreases the time school districts have to pay back bonds from 40 to 25 years. The law goes into effect Jan. 1 and will decrease the amount of bond revenue districts can raise at one time. With that in mind, the Los Banos Unified School District board of trustees is considering selling its remaining bonds before the end of the year.

The district would have $9.5 million if it starts selling the bonds this year. If officials wait until 2014, $7.6 million will be available.

“What I struggle with is the cost,” said school board president Chase Hurley. “There’s a $44 million payback on $9.5 million and if we get $7.5 million upfront there’s $30 million. People are going to say to me, ‘Chase, what the hell are you doing borrowing money at four times what it’s worth.’”

The board discussed the issue at an Oct. 3 special meeting, and a vote was expected Thursday after presstime.

In a telephone interview Monday, Hurley said he’d like to see the district explore a way to pay off the bonds sooner to minimize the amount that must be repaid.

Trustee Dennis Areias has floated the idea of not building a new junior high until the district can collect enough money under the new law.

“No matter what we do, it’s going to be uncomfortable for the students for a period of time,” Areias said. “If we can do something to save a million or two million dollars...”

Trustee John Mueller said there is no way the district can delay building a second junior high.

Paul Enos, the district’s secondary area administrator, said the only other option that has been discussed is moving some junior high students into portables at Los Banos High School. Parents rejected the idea.

“The gist of it when we included parents was they didn’t want their kids there. They said put the bad kids there,” Enos said. “Even the neighbors were like ‘you gonna put the bad kids there?’”

Areias said he’s hesitant to start selling the bonds because of the uncertainty at the state level.

“If it was definite that there’s going to be a school bond in 2014 and it would pass, I’d say let’s go forward and get the match,” he said. “There’s going to be other needs in the district, and waiting on the state to make us whole, I’m just hesitant.”

The district estimates a new junior high school will cost $23 million. Officials are also trying to build the school without state matching funds that typically accompany such projects. California has not decided whether it will place a school construction bond measure on the ballot next year. To afford the new school, the district is discussing using modular buildings similar to Mercey Springs Elementary, not having a gymnasium and possibly getting the U.S. Department of Agriculture to pay for a cafeteria. Nothing has been decided.

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