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Jason Walsh: Measure E under fire

Members of the SVHS track team on the school's track. (File photo)

JASON WALSH,

“It’s only a game, old sport. It’s all a game.” – “This Sporting Life,” 1963

The devil, they say, is in the details.

Though, in the case of the Sonoma Valley Unified School District’s Measure E bond-funding priorities, that observation is more of a question:

Was a 2,500-seat sports stadium ever in the details?

Whether it’s a “devil”... well, that depends upon whom you ask.

The proposed stadium, along with other athletics upgrades, have been bandied about for years – and they’ve been a lightning rod from the get go. High School sports boosters salivate at the idea of their kids playing in a first-class prep arena, while neighbors cringe at the thought of noise and lights. And, of course, school-district-spending watchdogs decry money spent lavishly on an after-school activity for a few, while the high school struggles to improve its middling academic standing for all.

As is often in life, there’s a reasonable argument on both sides – academics in a needs-to-be-improving school district are a no-brainer; yet, the athletic facilities at the high school have been neglected for years. Both have to improve at some point.

However, the question today isn’t if the high school’s track sucks. (It does.) The question is whether the voter-approved $120 million Measure E bond funds should be prioritized toward putting as much as 26 percent (or more) toward a stadium and other sports upgrades. And whether voters were clearly aware that this would be the case out of the gate when the district asked for their vote – and their trust – for its fourth bond measure in the last 25 years.

The recent grumblings about this – as the School District has pushed forward with plans to include such sports facilities and pool among its top priorities in Measure E spending – came to a head last week when longtime Sonoma Valley education advocates Gary and Marcia Nelson published three ads in consecutive issues of the Index-Tribune calling for greater school district transparency before the Board of Trustees moves forward with a facilities plan, as it is expected to do Sept. 12.

In the Nelsons’ “open letter to the community” they say, “As the Board of Education’s Measure E Implementation Plan has unfolded, we have become deeply alarmed that the Board’s Trustees are actually proposing to spend a disproportionate amount of the bond money on items that were not featured in their campaign.”

The Nelsons specifically refer to the Measure E ballot text from last year which emphasized computers, technology, classrooms, science labs and the somewhat ambiguous “school facilities,” but reserves not a word for sports. Which begs the question: While sports upgrades have been a focal point for the district since 2010, did officials leave them out of the Measure E campaign?

Let’s return to those thrilling days of yesteryear – the summer of 2016, when we were all a little younger, the “Russia Probe” was nothing more than a Z-grade stag party movie, and the $120 million Measure E campaign was all the rage with school district voters.

The district’s primary campaign pitch was about “warm, safe and dry” school facilities. No one debates this. In fact, those were the campaign marketing taglines.

In a well-reasoned response to the Nelson ads, Sonoma Valley Unified School District Superintendent Chuck Young wrote an op-ed in the Index-Tribune Sept. 8 reminding folks that upgrading district sports facilities has been the focus of “at least 100 meetings” over the last several years and, in follow-up emails, Young points out that the Measure E appendix A of the Nov. 8 ballot statement clearly mentioned an intent to “Modernize, renovate, rehabilitate, reconfigure, expand, upgrade and/or equip locker rooms, gymnasiums, physical education/athletic fields and related facilities for school and community use.”

How many voters read the appendixes to the measure, of course, is unknowable.

In the Index-Tribune’s Sept. 9, 2016 endorsement of Measure E, we also referenced that one of eight Measure E initiatives listed on the district’s website under spending priorities was to “improve physical education facilities for student safety.”

Based on those two examples, it’s safe to say spending on sports was always part of the revenue-allocation plan. However, to suggest that the Measure E campaign positioned itself as having a major focus on sports upgrades is sort of like saying the Trump presidential campaign was all about its plan to lower healthcare costs for the middle class. They may have had one, but they sure weren’t talking about it.

In our Sept. 6, 2016 front page story on Measure E, then-Sonoma Valley Unified School District Superintendent Louann Carlomagno said, “Our focus is on warm, safe and dry; technology and the 21st century classroom.” Throughout the Index-Tribune’s coverage of Measure E, campaign spokespeople emphasized the district’s aging buildings, the need for Chromebooks and “educating kids for jobs that don’t exist now.”

In our endorsement of the measure, we noted the lack of specifics in the campaign and compared the proposal to the Novato Unified School District’s $220 million bond initiative, which in its campaign materials listed what it planned to spend down to the dollar on everything from exterior paint to “flexible furniture.”

“Surely,” we said at the time, “SVUSD could have offered more detail in its plan.”

Well, here we are a year later and some “yes” voters are downright angry, saying they wouldn’t have supported the bond if they’d had a clearer picture of the District’s spending priorities.

In their ad, the Nelsons urge that, “before making a decision on the implementation plan, the Board needs to take the time needed to carefully weigh the pros and cons of the projects deemed worthy of funding and the relative priorities of those projects.”

The issue has less to do with the question of whether bond funds should be spent on sports – our endorsement wouldn’t have changed if athletic improvements were a part of the campaign; the district sorely needs them.

The real issue is about ensuring the public trust – not merely in regards to Measure E spending, but for all the other local tax initiatives that will no doubt be coming our way in the years ahead. When a swing voter feels burned by a “yes” vote on a tax, there’s a good chance they’ll swing to the “no” side for a while on all taxes, valid or not.

The Sonoma Valley Unified School District Board of Trustees should concede that it has left itself open to some head scratching from voters who didn’t know their Measure E support would so heavily fund sports.

And they should commit further review to how the current facilities plan aligns with the promises of Measure E.

The devil, after all, is in the details.

Email Jason at jason.walsh@sonomanews.com.