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February 2001

Biggest Marin School Bond Ever On March Ballot

By Carol Sterritt

On March 6th voters in the Tamalpais Union School District will stare at an unbelievable tally of cost items needed to upgrade their children's high schools. The full amount of the school bond measure comes to $121 million. Not since 1961 has a school bond for major restoration and repair been successful in the District. Repairs at the five schools included in the overhaul are now long overdue. The Jan 10th shutdown of Redwood High School's heating plant due to a gas leak was, although uncomfortable for students and staff, not much of a surprise.

Proponents of the measure hope that voters understand that Redwood High School was built during Eisenhower's term, Drake during Truman's, and Tamalpais High School came into existence during the term of Roosevelt (Teddy, not Franklin!). Such deferred maintenance items as dry rot, faulty and inadequate wiring and plumbing, decomposing foundations and other structural features, plus the wear-and-tear results of decades of "ground-settling" are now demanding attention. Buildings display their age with cracks in the ceilings, floors and walls themselves.

(In addition to the above-named schools, San Andreas Continuation and Tamiscal Independent Study High Schools will receive their share of restoration; as will the Adult Community Education District.)

When building a home, building costs in Marin are currently about $ 100 per sq. foot. For a venture such as a school, the cost is higher: $135 per square foot. Part of this reflects the necessity of the school's work being done in compliance with state-approved school codes. Also, high schools are complicated venues. They feature science labs, theaters, gymnasiums, libraries, and other necessary components not always found at grammar or middle school districts.

No proposed bond measure falls on a local ballot without attracting the attention of Fielding Greaves, who heads the Marin United Taxpayers Association. Greaves attacks this measure in a half a dozen or more ways. He strongly believes that The Tam School District could receive more of the monies needed for the project from Sacramento, as there is ample money sitting in California's surplus budget, much of it now devoted to schools. He agrees that the buildings are old, but since they are, why not simply raze them and build new structures? The construction will be on-going for a period of at least two years. Greaves worries that students will be plagued by the dust, soot, noise and turmoil of construction at the very time and place when they need full concentration for their studies.

Furthermore, Greaves points out that this bond measure will be the only item appearing on the ballot. This means that voters in the district will pay $230,000 for the pleasure of seeing this item in March rather than November. He also points out that William Levinson, Superintendent of the Tamalpais Union School District, is the same administrator who overlooked a two million dollar discrepancy in the school district's budget.

For fairness' sake, I interviewed both William Levinson and Sue Chellini, asking for their side of the story. Levinson was quick to explain that although the state does have funding for many school projects, most of the scheduled work falls under the "maintenance and modernization" category. As such, it is exempt from state funding. The district project will receive $14 million dollars in state matching funds, if and when the bond measure is successful.

Sue Chellini, the Assistant Principal at Redwood High School, agrees with Greaves' assessment that construction can negatively impact children's health and study habits. But she assured me that as each phase of the project is undertaken, students would be moved into portable trailers, out of the building areas where the work is proceeding. She added that construction will be going on at only two schools at a time, with Tam High possibly going first as it is the oldest and most in need of repair. Superintendent Levinson offered several explanations for his willingness to hold the vote in March rather than later. By voting on the measure in March, Proposition 39 will not yet be in effect. Therefore, the measure will have to succeed by a vote count of 67%. (Whereas if it waits, it will only need 55% of the vote.) However, since Prop 39's language already faces court challenges that might derail it, the school bond measure does require an independent position. That way it will hold up regardless of Prop 39's fate. If it wins in March, it will not be overturned.

Also, Levinson holds high expectations that the March election date will afford the measure the best interest rates that the market will have. He worries that an increase in rates could occur if the district waits until November. He is also concerned that should the district wait, the added costs of inflation for that waiting period could be significant. This amount could increase by three or four hundred percent the quarter million dollars that Greaves thinks would be saved.

As to Greaves final critique of Levinson's past handling of budgets, Levinson was quick to accept the blame. He stated, "Since the budget mistake occurred on my watch, it would not be responsible to avoid accepting the blame. I accept that." He went on to state that as soon as he was aware of the major discrepancy, he brought it to the public's attention. (Though he claims the amount of money was 1.7 million and not a full 2 million.) Also, he immediately brought the problem to the attention of FCMAT. That group brought in external auditors for the purpose of making recommendations. With that advice in place, the district had only a $200,000 deficit in 1998, and has had surplus budgets ever since. This in spite of the recent 10 percent pay raises for all staff at all the schools.

Levinson also responded to charges that senior citizens would not have any way to avoid the consequences of this measure. With the measure seeking $ 32.80 per $ 100,000 valuation of home, each year for the next 29 years, some seniors, if land rich but cash poor, might experience this bond measure as a threat to their own budget. There are two separate ways for seniors to avoid the full cost of the measure. Property owners who feel they may qualify for an exemption are invited to call 415 945 3709 for information.

Should the measure pass, many students and staff members will rejoice. Written comments from teachers regarding the deplorable state of the buildings include the following: From Barbara Owens, Redwood High English teacher, on Nov. 15, 2000, "At least we enjoy some heat occasionally. My team teacher doesn't share our experience as her heater does not work at all." From drama teacher Britt Block, Redwood High, "All of the primary electrical rigging is from the 1950's. We can no longer buy replacement parts. Even the "theatrical" antique shops no longer sell it." The ceiling is too low to get an adequate lighting angle because the false ceiling has been dropped to prevent asbestos poisoning."

Teachers also look forward to having old-fashioned narrow classrooms remodeled and re-sized to more comfortable dimensions. They hope the renovations will allow for each teacher to preside over their own room-so that they do not have to bundle their supplies from one classroom to another. Georganne T. Brumbaugh of Tam High's Science Department remarked, "I have finally had my own room for the past several years and have embellished it with many items purchased at my own cost, in order to have a welcoming and enriching environment for my students." She laments the fact that other teachers do not have this very necessary component for success in the classroom.

My one disappointment in reading over the 60 some page proposal for the building renovation was a lack of requirements for insuring that nothing in this project causes any of these buildings to acquire the "toxic building syndrome." This syndrome is often found when modern day construction methods over-utilize chemicals in products, and toxics in processes, to such an extent that many who work or study in such areas become ill. Consider this: the project might very well entail glues and adhesives for new flooring, ceiling tiles, cabinets, carpets, fixtures, etc. Combine toxics like those above with wood preservatives, fungicides to treat the mold lying beneath some of the buildings, paints, lacquers, enamels, stains and varnishes, etc. and you will have a chemical soup. Such a modern day recipe for health disaster includes chronic flu-like illnesses, chronic fatigue syndrome, auto-immune disease flare-ups (lupus, multiple sclerosis, dermatitis, etc.)

Ironically, one of the first facilities in our country that burdened its occupants with "sick building syndrome" was none other than a building built by the EPA for its employees. In the initial phases of occupying the building, as many as thirty percent of the workers were ill. A much smaller number continue suffering with chronic ailments for well over a decade since their first onset of symptoms. Here in Marin, everyone involved in The School Renovation Project should become familiar with the possibility of "sick building syndrome", and most importantly, with those steps and procedures that will help our local high schools avoid it.

I contacted a Marin County resident who has been instrumental in educating those planning the Mill Valley Community Center, Dr. Sandy Ross. She advised that any school buildings where there had been previous outbreaks of mold should be provided with ample hepa-filters to purify the air. Also, she said that Mill Valley was serious about the idea of flushing the new Community Center with up to one month of fresh air before opening the facility to community use. The facility's new carpets would be out-gassed and its new furniture would be held in outdoor areas until it too had out-gassed. She hopes that Tamalpais Union High School District will consider doing the same. (With $ 121 million becoming available, such mitigations should not be a monetary problem.) Without such steps being taken, students and teachers could well be trading in their health and well-being for the sake of upgrading their schools.

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