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Costly Upgrades

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The November 2 public meeting at South San Antonio High School felt like<BR> a victory rally




The November 2 public meeting at
South San Antonio High School felt like a victory rally. Hundreds of people
gathered in the school's auditorium to hear rousing speeches and a spirited
performance by the high-school's band. But there was an undercurrent of
desperation beneath the celebratory surface.



School
administrators warned parents that the district - which includes 18 schools -
desperately needed them to approve a bond proposal to cover district-wide
disability-compliance renovations required by the federal government, as well
as construction of new maintenance, transportation, and food-services
facilities.



Band
booster Herman Sanchez told the crowd that band competitors from other schools
come to South San High School for contests and leave "thinking the facilities
are a ghetto." Sanchez, and several parents who spoke at the meeting, insisted
that their children deserve better than the decrepit surroundings to which
they've become accustomed.



Five days
after the meeting, district voters disregarded their pleas and rejected the
South San bond proposal. The ballot-box failure leaves South San in the
unenviable position of having to comply with costly Americans with Disabilities
Act regulations without the necessary funding.




"There was
a sense of disappointment about what happened," says Ed Suarez,
public-information officer for South San ISD. "We felt like the message got
out, but perhaps it didn't resonate."



South San
has an embarrassing history of playing politics with school issues. Early this
year, without any public discussion, the district's board of trustees changed
the name of Royalgate Elementary to Frank Madla Elementary, only two months
before Madla, a longtime state senator, faced a primary election. Shortly
before the board made its decision, Madla had paid Edgar Lopez, brother of
SSAISD board president Manuel Lopez, $3,000 for "campaign coordination."



Previously,
the South San board raised eyebrows when it resisted calls for the removal of a
likeness of former Councilman Raul Prado from a school mural, despite the fact
that Prado had been convicted on corruption charges that included the
acceptance of bribes in exchange for a South San engineering contract. Prado's
wife Connie, a South San school-board trustee, adamantly opposed the latest
bond proposal, and district officials privately cite her as a major cause of
the bond's election-day defeat.



District
officials made a persuasive case for the bond, which resulted from a March
audit by the Office of Civil Rights. The audit concluded that several South San
facilities do not comply with American with Disabilities Act regulations.
School administrators argued that voter approval of the bond proposal would
allow the district to apply for state aid under the Existing Debt Allotment
Program.



Voters
were told that the state would provide approximately 70 percent of the
$37.2-million bond, with taxpayers shouldering only an $11-million burden. The
cost for the average homeowner in the district, based on South San financial
projections, was less than $40 a year ($3.29 a month). Although the EDA money
was not yet guaranteed, administrators told constituents that rejecting the
bond proposal would be the equivalent of leaving $26 million on the table.




With little
disagreement that the district's schools badly need upgrading, and with the
possibility of massive supplemental help from the state, it's easy to wonder
what went wrong on election day.



District
officials point to a vociferous opposition campaign from the Committee for
Fairness in Our Schools, a group backed by Connie Prado. Opposition literature
sent to the west part of the district complained that South San High School
would receive $9.1 million in renovation funding while the high school's west
campus would receive less than $600,000, and mailouts to the east argued the
opposite: that the west side of the district would benefit excessively.



Although
these arguments were contradictory, the suggestion that bond money would be
distributed disproportionately stuck with many voters, and an early-voting
campaign organized by the Committee for Fairness left bond proponents in a
bleak position.



"We have
to do approximately $5.5 million of ADA compliance," Suarez says. "There's also
a $600,000 road that we have to build behind the new middle school. That's our
responsibility. So we're looking at a $6-million tab that we have to figure out
how to take care of.



"Right
now, the only thing I can say is there are going to be some hard choices that
the board of trustees and the superintendent are going to have to make. I would
think that there's going to be some painful decisions that will have to be made
in terms of belt tightening. It's very unfortunate."





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