Local school districts are beginning to see the results of a hard-fought campaign last year to pass Proposition 51, a $9 billion state construction bond.

The State of California sold its first round of bonds, totaling $433 million, and allocated funds this week. It gave priority funding to school projects that have long been completed, but never received promised matching dollars from the state.

Among the released funds was more than $25 million in projects completed by the Bakersfield City School District and $5 million for the Sierra Sands Unified School District in Ridgecrest. Funding should be available within 90 days, according to a press release issued by the State Allocation Board.

“This will go a long way toward replenishing our reserves,” said Christina Giraldo, assistant superintendent of business and support services at Sierra Sands Unified.

Voters approved Proposition 51 last year, despite facing stiff opposition by Gov. Jerry Brown, who called it “the developer’s bond” and a “blunderbuss effort” that disproportionately afforded money to bigger districts with more resources because funds are distributed on a first-come, first-served basis.

But district officials leading both small and large districts in Kern County rallied around the proposition, saying it was their only hope to manage overwhelming enrollment growth. Bakersfield continues to outpace most other California cities in terms of growth, but the county, especially rural regions, is checkered with properties with low assessed valuations, ultimately limiting how much some districts could ask voters to bond locally.

Despite its status as the state’s largest elementary school district, BCSD counts itself among those that have difficulty bonding what it needs because much of its district is located in the inner-city.

So district officials have been waiting on funds for schools it built years ago. Now they have payday in sight.

The state committed to delivering $25.5 million in matching funds for the construction of Douglas K Fletcher Elementary School and Paul Cato Middle School, which opened in 2014, but ran out of money at the time and couldn’t deliver.

“We had to build those schools without any state money,” BCSD Assistant Superintendent of Business Services Steve McClain said last year while campaigning for Proposition 51 funds – the only hope his district had for getting a state reimbursement. “They’re four years behind in funding construction of those schools. We had to put more of our own local bond funds into the building of schools.”

The district now plans to spend the $25.5 million it received on a new STEM academy planned at Cottonwood Road and Belle Terrace Avenue in east Bakersfield, McClain said. The district would use a portion of a local $110 million bond it passed in November to supplement the project.

“It’s coming at just the right time because we expect to be breaking ground on that next year,” McClain said, explaining that the school has grown an average of about 360 students annually over 10 years. In 2011-2012, the district enrolled 731 new students, and saw 300 new students this year.

The average elementary school has a capacity for about 800 to 900 students, McClain said.

“We’ll have to keep building more schools,” McClain said.

And as enrollment grows, so does the cost of building a new school. Just a few years ago, construction insiders said the cost of a new elementary school hovered around $25 million. Now McClain says that figure is closer to $30 million.

“There’s a lot of projects going on and the labor supply is not that strong in terms of construction here in Bakersfield, so we’re seeing costs go up," McClain said. "We don't get that much in local bond funds – we can't generate that much – so that state matching dollars are very important to us." 

Harold Pierce covers education and health for The Californian. He can be reached at 661-395-7404. Follow him on Twitter @RoldyPierce

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