Performances will have to continue as they have for decades at Calaveras High School as a proposed theater for the campus was voted down in a split vote Tuesday.
Worry over a tenuous budget and other pressing facilities projects led to the 2-3 vote by the Calaveras Unified School District board of trustees against constructing a performing arts center at CHS. The theater was promised to voters who approved Measure A in 2006, but Trustees Evan Garamendi, Karan Bowsher and Greg Gustafson voted against a motion that was put before them by Trustee Sherri Reusche that sought to build the theater if the district could refinance some existing debt without borrowing more money.
Board Chairwoman Karan Bowsher provided a short synopsis of where the trustees found themselves Tuesday at their regular meeting at the Mokelumne Hill Elementary School multipurpose room. She explained that CUSD eligibility for $1.2 million in funds from the state runs out in mid-March and reminded the audience that trustees have directed staff that they did not want to proceed on the project if they had to borrow more.
“We don’t want more debt,” she said. “We don’t want longer debt, but we also want to honor promises made to voters.”
The theater plans were approved by the Department of State Architects several years ago, but CUSD has walked a tightrope trying to find all the dollars needed to erect the $5.4 million, 501-seat performing arts center ever since bids were first opened in 2008. Those bids shocked the architect and district officials when most came in at more than $8 million. But that was during a construction boom that has now gone bust; the plans were trimmed to reduce costs, but there was still about $200,000 that wasn’t readily available to complete construction.
Trustees balked at a refinance option floated in May of last year because it would have added 13 years to the repayment schedule at current payment levels. CUSD could have refinanced Certificates of Participation that the district owes for other facilities projects, but on Jan. 19, trustees learned that they could also have realized savings and not incurred longer payment schedules if they refinanced now. The refinance would have brought about $550,000 to district coffers.
A redesign would now cost in excess of $1 million – in design charges and state application fees – because the existing plans cannot be tweaked as they expire in March.
Some people in the audience questioned the timing of the construction project, given that the district filed a qualified First Interim Report in December. Others suggested the remaining funds from the $13.5 million general obligation bond should be spent on maintenance projects throughout the district.
Terri Henderson, president of the Calaveras School Employees Association (the district’s classified union), implored trustees to build a cafeteria at Toyon Middle School.
“This doesn’t mean we hate the arts,” she said. “It’s a shame for (Toyon) kids to have to line up in the rain” to pick up their lunches.
Jean Gonzalves, who sits on the Bond Oversight Committee, said that a panel of district staff and members of the public charged with tracking the expenditure of Measure A funds is split on what to do, but said she wanted trustees to hold off on the vote.
Reusche put forward a motion to construct the theater as proposed if savings over the long run were realized with the COP refinance. Bowsher called for a roll call vote and Reusche and Zerrall McDaniel, also a longtime supporter of the theater, cast the only votes for approval.
Bowsher said she respected the time and discussions that have happened up to this point, but said she couldn’t support the theater right now.
Gustafson said he appreciated the complicated nature of the situation, but favored seeking input from the community on projects throughout the district.
Garamendi said she wants a trade school built in the district.
“I’m very disappointed,” McDaniel said.
Superintendent Mark Campbell said Thursday that options available for the roughly $4 million in remaining Measure A funds include the exploration of a smaller theater, crafting a list of facility needs all over the north-county district and prioritizing them, or a combination of the two.
“I would recommend we explore building a smaller performing arts center and then using remaining funds on other facilities projects,” he said.
Earlier in the meeting, trustees unanimously approved a retirement incentive for certificated teachers that grants up to two years of additional credit to teachers that opt to retire this year. Campbell told the board that a dozen staff members have indicated they would accept the “golden handshake” if the district offered it, which would eliminate the need for CUSD to issue any layoff notices in March. If the dozen teachers retire, six of them would be refilled for the fall.
“All layoffs this year would be driven by enrollment, not by the budget,” he said.
If those 12 teachers bid CUSD farewell, it would save $430,000 to $440,000 annually over the next two years. Those “out” years in the CUSD budget were the reason for the qualified First Interim Report, in which CUSD could now show the state that it could pay all of its bills.