Wanted: Technology, Infrastructure Renovation Bond for Orange Schools

Orange Unified School District has unsuccessfully tried to get three bond measures passed over the years, and now it's going for another one.

"Panther Plaza," a place where students gather during the day, floods when it rains, transforming into what the students call "Panther Pond." Drains from nearby bathrooms clog up, bubbling into the pond.

The campus is peppered with portable classrooms called "T" buildings. The "T" is supposed to stand for "temporary," but many of the units have been in place for decades, serving a growing population. There are 30.

The biggest concern for district staff are the science buildings, which are mostly the same as they were in the '50s. Teachers do what they can to stay up to date, and the result is a mess of wires hanging from ceilings, snaking behind and around furniture across the room in search of outlets.

"What you find is teachers are resourceful," Ed Howard, administrative director at the district office, said. "When new technology comes around, they're going to want it. But when you don't have the infrastructure set up because of the age of the building, this is how you make it work. We're getting by instead of, for lack of a better term, doing it right."

Howard taught at Orange High for 17 years and was a principal at Villa Park High for 10 years. Now at the district, he says the situation at Orange High is representative of the need all OUSD schools have for renovations — the kind only possible through a bond measure, he said.

If a bond measure is placed on the November ballot, it will be the fourth time since 2004 the district will have asked voters to approve adding a levy to property taxes to raise money for school construction and improvement projects. The district hasn't announced yet how much it would look to raise in a bond measure.

Former Villa Park Councilwoman Deborah Pauly opposes adding to residents' taxes and said the schools need to shore up their maintenance practices before relying so strongly on a bond.

"This is the fourth time they've asked the same question, and they keep getting the same answer: No," she said. "People are aware that bond money is not manna from heaven. They have systemic problems in the maintenance division that have never been addressed. Until they address those, no matter how much money we give to make things squeaky and brand new, we will be right back where we started from in a very short time."

Other common criticisms include that the district should save its own money for renovations rather than imposing higher taxes on residents.

Howard said wear and tear simply can't be avoided no matter how much maintenance you do, to say nothing of technological gaps. Saving money works in some states, Howard said, because taxation is allotted differently, but in California, school renovations are left up to communities. This means the schools either need development fees from major local developments — as Irvine has enjoyed recently — or a bond measure.

"No district has saved money over time to build new buildings and do all this stuff. The way it works in the state of California is that it comes from the community," he said. "If you don't have new developments and all that stuff, then it comes to a bond."

The school board will meet at 7 p.m. Thursday to decide how to pursue the bond measure. Polling results at a special meeting last week indicated support for splitting the campuses between two improvement districts — one with Orange and El Modena schools and the other with Canyon and Villa Park — was not as strong as expected. The board may decide to try a districtwide bond yet again.

©2016 The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.), distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.