Despite sagging polls and predictions ballot fatigue would doom school bonds, those measures overwhelmingly passed Tuesday, shattering local records as almost $1.4 billion in construction funding was approved countywide.
Those local measures, including Kern Community College District’s $502.8 million Measure J and Kern High School District’s $280 million Measure K, will be helped by state voters' passage of Proposition 51 Tuesday. That $9 billion school bond measure will provide many districts with matching funds for new construction.
Of the state’s record 184 local school bond measures, only a handful failed. In Kern County, 10 of 11 passed. McFarland’s bond — the only one with an organized campaign committee opposing it — failed.
“Voters made the right choice by continuing to invest in education,” said incoming California Community Colleges Chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley. “These resources will help us offer the classes we need to educate our state’s workforce, improve transfer opportunities and help close achievement gaps.”
Staggering bond approval came after months of speculation that voters would be dissuaded by the number of ballot measures and their price tags. But that didn’t hinder bond success, with Southern California voters passing some bonds worth more than $3 billion in single districts.
Advocates attributed the success to voters realizing the need to invest in classrooms equipped for 21st century learning.
“I see this as really important for our kids, not just the ones we have here today, but for our future kids coming into our schools … I’m relieved voters saw it that way,” said Jenny Hannah, Kern County Superintendent of Schools chief facilities officer who also chairs California’s Coalition for Adequate School Housing, the main proponent of Proposition 51.
Detractors said it had more to do with a lack of opposition, which is often crushed by special interest-funded bond campaigns. CASH’s campaign was bankrolled by about $7 million, most of it from developers and construction companies.
“Last night just shows they’re fine-tuned. They can print money on demand,” said Richard Michael, a state bond watchdog.
Regardless of the politics, the new funding stream opens doors for massive construction projects.
KHSD intends to build a new Career Technical Education facility. Board members have talked for years about bolstering vocational programs, even becoming a national model for CTE.
Measure K’s success puts the district on track for that while creating career paths that will uniquely serve Kern County, said KHSD board President Mike Williams.
“Our hope is that we’ll be supplying our economy with the kind of workers that are in demand, and will get paid well, and will be contributing taxpayers to the economics of Kern County,” Williams said.
The district committed to breaking ground on a $60 million CTE center in the southwest regardless of the bond election outcome. Another $63 million CTE center in the northwest is planned to break ground in 2017 with money voters approved Tuesday.
Creating multiple campuses would alleviate overcrowding in the program, Williams said, adding that students who struggle in school sometimes turn around academically when introduced to CTE.
“They get excited and they can see a future for themselves, and suddenly their attendance is up, their attitude is up, their demeanor is up and they start dreaming about what they can be,” Williams said.
KCCD officials had little faith that Proposition 51 would pass, said Bakersfield College President Sonya Christian. Now that voters approved the $9 billion bond, officials are taking another look at their project list, attempting to squeeze every dollar they can from the measure.
One of their priorities will be a $65 million STEM building that will transform the southeast end of campus into a “STEM neighborhood,” Christian said.
“We have systematically been focused on expanding our STEM programs because they lead into high-wage jobs,” Christian said.
And at the Bakersfield City School District, administrators plan to use much of its $110 million bond to construct a new elementary school.
The remainder could go toward renovations at the district’s school sites, but Assistant Superintendent of Business Steve McClain didn’t underestimate the district’s need for additional classrooms.
“It’s definitely at the front of our list for adding more schools because we know we’ve had nine years of straight enrollment growth,” McClain said.
Countywide, Kern has seen enrollment growth every year since 2010, underscoring the need for upgrading school facilities that have taken a beating throughout the years, school officials say.