In a surprising turn of events no one seemed to suspect was coming, San Mateo-Foster City School District (SMFCSD) Superintendent Dr. Cynthia Simms took the microphone at Thursday's night special meeting and recommended the board of trustees not approve the $130-million bond measure the district was considering adding to the November election ballot.
The district found itself pressed up against a wall in the past couple of weeks, as Friday, Aug. 10 is the deadline to place any new measures on the November ballot.
If the board failed to approve the measure and the deadline was missed, they would be looking at another entire year until the next regular election to get their measure in front of voters, since, by law, a school bond measure such as this must be voted on in a regularly-scheduled election.
That tight deadline appears to have registered strongly with Simms and members of SCORE (the Superintendent's Committee on Overcrowding Relief), who spoke out in opposition of rushing into things Thursday night.
Superintendent Simms opened the discussion at Thursday night's board meeting by catching the entire room by surprise, and recommending the board let the ballot deadline pass, and they put off asking voters to support a $130-million bond measure for another year.
She explained, the main reason behind her recommendation was that she didn't feel the board had done enough community outreach and talked to enough parents in the district to gauge their support for how the board wanted to spend the $130 million, on , and modernizing several San Mateo schools.
"My question is - have we done enough community engagement to say we’re ready, to go forward with this and take it to the voters this November?" Simms asked the board.
"I think there’s still work to be done," she continued. "I think it would be a little disappointing to put this off for a year, until the following November, but I’d rather be sure the community understands [everything our schools need] before something goes on the ballot."
After Simms spoke, SCORE member Yvonne Ryzak addressed the room, expressing her support for the recommendation.
In essence, Ryzak admitted, though she thinks the committee's proposed plan - to tear down and rebuild Bowditch and move fifth graders there, thereby creating extra room for younger grades in Foster City's three elementary schools - is a great one, she thinks it was a little too hastily thrown together, since they were trying to finish a proposal before the ballot deadline.
"We felt rushed at the SCORE committee," she said. "We still came up with a fabulous idea, but it’s still just an idea. It’s a general idea."
Ryzak added, one of her main concerns was, the proposed design of the new Bowditch campus was drawn up in just two days. And, its estimated price tag of $65 million was also arrived upon with the architects and land use experts SCORE consulted in just two days - therefore, were they sure it was accurate?
"When we’re talking about this kind of money, it really deserves our due diligence," she said.
Finally, Ryzak said she felt the bond measure proposal was too general, and didn't give voters a clear enough picture of what the money would be spent on.
Though Ryzak said she "has full confidence in Dr. Simms' leadership," she asked the board, "please give us the time we need to do this once, and do it right."
Foster City Councilmember Charlie Bronitsky, who came out to witness the board's vote, stood up and said, though he would full-heartedly support whatever decision the board made, he thought the recommendation to postpone the bond measure was a smart one.
Bronitsky said he agreed more community outreach needed to be done before putting the measure up to a vote - especially with San Mateo families, who would be asked to vote on it too.
"San Mateo's population is three times the size of Foster City's - so, whenever they want, they can outvote us," he pointed out.
He said, with more time, the board and SCORE could polish the proposed plan into "a stellar one, that would be able to overcome any resistance from the public."
When it came time for the trustees to voice their opinions, though each member said they, too, were surprised by Simms' recommendation to postpone, they each supported the idea as well.
"I am a little disappointed, because this has already been such a long journey," said trustee Audrey Ng, who has an 11-year-old son who will be starting the sixth grade at Bowditch later this month. "But I will listen to the recommendation of the SCORE members, and I will support Dr. Simms."
Trustee Colleen Sullivan said she predicted a bit of a backlash from Foster City parents over postponing, but that she agreed it would give them more time to perfect the plan.
"I know the reaction from some parents tomorrow will be ‘Here we go again, another year's delay,’ but I really think we need this time," she said.
One trustee - Ellen Mallory Ulrich - was a little more vocal in her support of postponement.
"I’m very relieved," she said. "This whole process has been hard for me, because I have been against this school bond measure from the beginning."
Ulrich said part of what “disturbed” her the whole time was that she didn’t see a lot of community participation in discussions.
"I look forward to going forward and getting community support over the next year," she said.
Ulrich added, with the state of the economy and California's budget crisis being what they are currently, she thought it was the wrong time for a $130-million bond measure.
“Do we want to be another one of those people with their hand out, asking the public for more money?” she said.
Board Vice-President Julie Chan echoed the sentiment.
"I was surprised to hear it would be $65 million, and that you were in support of spending that kind of money," Chan said. "I wasn’t really comfortable with that number."
With the extra time postponement would grant them, Chan suggested the board and SCORE solicit for more competitive bids, to see if they can get price down.
In the end, the school board voted unanimously to not approve the $130-million school bond measure.
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