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Thursday, February 26, 2009

Focusing the Debate on Davis High School's Stadium Renovation

Back in December, the DJUSD school board made the decision to prioritize the modernization of the football stadium over that of Emerson Junior High. This has generated a lot of criticism for the school district from a number of different quarters. In general this criticism has been ill-founded and based on misconceptions of funding and other factors.

The purpose of this article is to clarify some of the issues. While there seems to be a good deal of criticism to go around, it should be criticism that is fact-based rather than based on misinformation.

I largely decided to do this article because the school board and district's perspective is, we had a full public discussion about this at least twice in open meetings. People can view the tapes of those meetings if they are confused.

That is of course not how it works. The district needs to do a better job of communicating with the public. People do not watch the meetings and they will not watch the tapes of the meeting. At least most people will not. They may not even read the newspaper on the issue. But that will not stop them from forming opinions and even expressing those opinions.

Likely then that means the issue of communication falls to entities such as the Vanguard which can breakdown complex issues and discuss them at length rather than being confined to 500 words, 800 words, even 1200 words.

For that reason I have decided to go ahead with this explanation, even though I'm not sure what decision I would have made had I been a board member in December or February. Criticisms as I said should be fact-based and then people can make up their own minds.

A letter appears February 20, 2009 in the Davis Enterprise from 24 teachers at Cesar Chavez Elementary School.

They wrote:
"Fourth, we oppose the plan to build a $10 million high school stadium while there are schools such as Emerson Junior High which, last year, was under consideration for closure due to dilapidated facilities. Additionally, the long-term effects of the stadium financing on the general fund are not clearly delineated, and a clear payment plan has not been developed."
For this we need to back up several steps. Last spring, the district was facing a $4.5 million deficit. To that into perspective, what we face now which is roughly $3.1 million is a two year deficit. The scale of that deficit dwarfed this one in a lot of ways. So one thing the district was looking at was they knew off the bat they could save over $600,000 by closing a school.

The next part of this was the condition of Emerson Junior High. The district knew that it needed upgrades and repairs. However, what they did not know at that time was whether those needed upgrades and repairs were safety violations. This all happened so quickly that the district was in danger of making decisions based on less than complete information. This is very important to understand, to a good degree, the condition of the facilities in Spring of 2008 was unknown and all discussions were speculation.

Based on this and the problems of logistics that arose, the district made the decision not to close Emerson Junior High at that time and evaluate the facilities at a later point.

In June 2008, the district completed its evaluation. The evaluations indicate that the district will need to spend between $10 and $15 million on upgrades to Emerson. However, what they were told was that this was not an imminent safety problem. Much of the needed upgrades and repairs were to get it up to date with current code requirements. According to the consultants at the December meeting, that can happen at any time. Basically those requirements only kick in if the school were to do a major construction project.

School board Tim Taylor made it a point to talk about this back in December. He acknowledged rumors of deteriorating conditions in the buildings at Emerson but again added that there rumors were not borne out by the actual surveys by architects.

So when the teachers say there were school such as Emerson that were under consideration for closure due to dilapidated facilities, that is both misleading and really out of date information. The correct statement would have been that the district was looking to cut costs last spring and the conditions of the buildings while not known at the time, were cited as a possible reason for closure of the school.

I have said before and I will say again, I do not believe that any board members or any administrator wants to close Emerson. That is based on personal discussions with just about all of them. Moreover, looking at the three year finances, I do not see a reason that the district would need to close Emerson. They may play with the configurations, but I believe with strong certainty that Emerson is in no danger at this point of closing.

I spent more space than anticipated addressing the Emerson rumor, but that was important to put to bed. At a future point, there will be an article that fully explains the financing of the football stadium at Davis High School.

At this point, here is what we know. The district believes it can get redevelopment money for a portion of this project. That redevelopment money can only be used for school facilities, not for teacher salaries or other instructional expenses.

Second, the district is planning on borrowing about $4 million against future revenues from the school district's community facilities districts. Again those funds can be used for school facilities only, not for teacher salaries.

See a pattern here. I am uncertain what the teachers meant when they stated: "the long-term effects of the stadium financing on the general fund are not clearly delineated." To my knowledge there will be no impact on the general fund since these monies do not and CANNOT come from general fund monies.

There has been considerable public outcry to this point about the project. In part the money issue is driving this. Part of that stems from the perception that the district is starving for money on one hand but taking up a $10 million project on the other. Again, that perception is wrong and misplaced because of the differential in types of funding.

The other issue with funding is that the district chose DHS over Emerson. They did this in December. There is no getting around the fact that they consciously prioritized DHS Stadium over Emerson. As I have already explained that does not mean they are closing Emerson. They simply believe that DHS Stadium is more pressing.

Again, I turn to a letter to the editor, this one from New Year's eve:
"Unquestionably, the appalling condition of the Blue Devils' stadium calls for its replacement. But in these desperate economic times is a costly restoration the best option? Especially when it likely means stalling desperately needed restoration at Emerson."
One of the questions is of course whether the restoration at Emerson is really desperately needed.

However, what is clear is that this is not merely an issue of the football program at the high school. This is not merely a matter of putting academics ahead of athletics or the appearance of vice-versa.

What this comes down to is a health and safety issue. The district was told by consultants and by students that there are safety issues not just with the football field, but with the track and with the stands. The district believes they face liability if this issue is not corrected and that liability would come out of the general fund whereas the repair comes from facilities money.

Again, that is the issue and the basis on which they made their decision. Are there alternatives to renovating the field? That is subject to debate and discussion. The district seemed to consider alternatives such as using Toomey Field, that seemed to be cost-prohibitive as well. Moreover it was impractical for everyday usage. Remember it is not merely the athletics programs that use the facilities but there is everyday usage.

Regardless, I think the question about alternatives is a fair discussion point. I also think the question about prioritization is a fair discussion point as long as understand the facts at this time suggest that Emerson is not going to be shutdown due to health and safety issues and the district's consultants believe that DHS Stadium faces more imminent and significant health and safety concerns than Emerson.

So to quickly summarize here: Emerson is not closing due to health and safety concerns. DHS Stadium will not use monies that could go to the classroom. The district believes the situation is more critical at DHS Staidum where Emerson mainly faces code upgrades that are not needed until construction occurs in the future.

---David M. Greenwald reporting