As emergency preparations continue at both Trinity High and Weaverville Elementary School campuses for a Sept. 3 opening date, the Trinity Alps Unified School District Board of Trustees took a dive last week into what it might take to secure the construction funding necessary to remediate the black mold that has forced the closure of most of the district’s existing buildings.
Moving the school start date out two weeks for students, the district is still in the process of installing 26 portable classrooms and sufficient restrooms to accommodate students and staff at both campuses by then. Many other plans are also in the works by teams of volunteers to use offsite facilities including other school district’s gyms for athletic events and practices and even the county jail kitchen for food service. An emergency reserve fund that started with $1.7 million is the source being tapped to pay for immediate expenses.
What the district will do in the long run to abate the mold and reconstruct some of its major facilities including gyms and cafeterias was a main topic during last week’s regular board meeting.
The project manager hired for mold abatement and reconstruction, Kevin Nolen of Willow Creek, spoke of his funding efforts on behalf of other school districts including Hoopa, Burnt Ranch, Trinity Center and Mountain Valley Unified in Hayfork that have faced similar problems.
He said the district will of course seek state funding through the Office of Public School Construction “that operates under a lot of rules and regulations that have been set for a long time and they are stuck with. So when we go, they will ask if we qualify for financial hardship, and you don’t. If you don’t, you pay 40 percent of the cost. If it’s a $50 million-project, that means you pay $20 million, and you don’t have $20 million.”
He explained the state’s criteria for financial hardship, concluding that the district doesn’t qualify because it doesn’t charge as much as it could in developer fees and because its bond capacity, estimated at $27 million based on property values within the county, is not even close to the state’s threshold of $5 million or less.
A financial hardship qualification would entitle the district to 100 percent funding from the state, “and we want to get to that, but we have to show the state that we’re doing our part to come up with our share of the money.”
Nolen said there are two ways to do that: issuance of new debt in the form of certificates of participation and to sponsor a local bond measure asking voters within the district to approve an additional property tax. He added the most likely scenario is a combination of the two.
He added that state funding formulas are unfair to rural areas where remoteness drives construction costs much higher than in the cities, and that markets “are really high right now, driving bids way up.”
The soonest that a bond measure could possibly be placed before voters would be the March 2020 primary election, and that would require school board action at its November meeting.
In the meantime, final reports are still pending on the full scope of the mold problem and the corrective actions needed to remediate or reconstruct 50-year-old facilities to meet current building codes.
Board President Dan Beans said there’s a general “paranoia” about incurring new debt, “but it is not scary. It is a normal thing for a facility that will last 50 years to be in debt for 30. It is not the end of the world, and the beneficiaries enjoying the use of these facilities will pay as they go. Interest rates are also at a historic low right now.”
Some suggested that process begin as soon as possible to provide seed money to get started “because right now, we aren’t starting,” said District Supt. Jaime Green. He added the $50 million figure probably ought to be doubled if it includes a new gym at each campus, but the full scope of the project is still being determined.
“We can’t rush it. We have to get it right, because if we make a mistake, we aren’t going to be able to go back and ask for more money,” he said, adding the situation “calls for a lot of boots on the ground. I believe everything is negotiable and I am questioning everything. We need to maintain control of our district.”
Beans agreed, noting the situation contains much potential for fraud and requires everyone’s vigilance.
Adding more to their plate, Chief Business Officer Gretchen Deichler from the Trinity County Office of Education advised board members they will need to develop a detailed plan for general fund spending reductions by October to show how the district will deal with continuing deficits in its multi-year budget projections.
She said the district cannot issue non-voter approved debt without approval by the County Office of Education, and “to do so, we will have to look at your ability to repay. Even before these extenuating circumstances, your multi-year projections include significant reductions: $300,000 one year and $200,000 the year after. We can’t lose sight of that.”
Green agreed, saying “this will not be easy. We made large cuts last year, so cutting again is going to be even more difficult. The reserve is for emergencies and we had one, so if we don’t go through and reduce this more, there is nowhere to pull that money from. There are very hard choices to be made.”
The district’s chief financial officer Cindy Blanchard said the general fund budget has improved some from when she prepared the multi-year projections, but there will be added costs if it takes on debt, “and TCOE will want to know where that’s coming from.”
Ending on a brighter note, Green acknowledged the many community members who have stepped up to help the district however they can, including Trinity County Sheriff Tim Saxon “who is saving us about $100,000 by offering us use of the jail kitchen” for preparation of food that will be delivered to campuses. He also cited Wes Scribner’s efforts as a contractor “undertaking the monumental task to rebuild two campuses.”
Scribner said “we have a ton of people pulling together and focused on that hard Sept. 3 date. There’s a whole team chomping at the bit to get this going.”