By Maureen Robertson
Superintendent Robert Graeff asked for direction from Ramona school trustees, and he received it. They want recommendations for a potential general obligation bond on the November 2014 ballot.
Voters in November 2012 denied the district’s bid for a $66 million bond. The proposal received 50.6 percent voter support but needed 55 percent.
“If the board takes this action tonight, it does not commit you to anything,” Graeff said at the trustees’ meeting
Sept. 19, “It gives us direction to come back with a bond conversation.”
In his report to the board, Graeff reviewed conversation at the community workshop on Aug. 17, reasons for fiscal challenges the district faces, steps the district and employees have taken, ideas to improve the budget, and possible next steps.
At the top of the trustees’ list of priorities for 2013-14 is to “improve district’s short-term and long-term fiscal health.”
“Factors that continue to plaque the district are 12 consecutive years of declining enrollment, rising health care costs and declining state revenue,” Graeff said in his report. “To improve local finances, the governing board has recently negotiated new compensation agreements with all employee groups and reduced millions of dollars in annual operating costs. The board has also authorized a study of our current facilities and real property with the expectation of receiving a detailed report and recommendations later this fall.”
Other districts have faced declining enrollment, increased health costs and state cuts, said Graeff, but what’s unique to Ramona is the $25 million loan in the form of a certificate of participation (COP) a previous board indebted the district to in 2004. The district refinanced the loan in 2007 and until this year payments came from bond funds and developer fees, said Graeff.
“This is the year, the year right now, where we actually begin to hit the general fund for payments toward the COP,” he said.
The payment this year is $75,000, next year’s is $1.7 million, and payments for the next 20 years increase about $100,000 each year, he said.
If the district paid off the COP today, the payment would be about $35 million. After reviewing all cost-cutting and fundraising options, Graeff said, “There is no action you’re going to take related to that plan that is going to solve the long-term indebtedness of this district."
Responding to Trustee John Rajcic’s question, “When the rubber hits the road, what would you recommend,” Graeff said, “A large reason why we are having severe financial issues in Ramona is because of that COP. Bob Graeff would like to have the doggone thing paid off. And the only way to do that is to pass a school bond.”
“I’d like to work on another bond on next year’s election,” said Trustee Kim Lasley, recommending that, “if we did (another bond bid), we’d have to keep it simple, real simple.”
Agreeing that last year’s bond bid was district-driven, the consensus was that, if the district were to attempt another bond, it must have community buy-in. Trustees Dawn Perfect and Rodger Dohm noted that survey results from before the bond bid and the actual vote were almost the same.
“The last time around, we didn’t change any votes,” said Perfect. “The bond survey that was done was exactly accurate. No votes changed with all the campaigning and all the door knocking.”
“If the survey tells us the community’s not on board, we should not do it. We should wait,” said Dohm.
“To me it’s rather simple,” Rajcic said.
Legions of yes voters aren’t registered to vote, he said.
“You register (them) and you make sure that they’re going to get an absentee ballot,” he said, and when the absentee ballots arrive, “you knock on the door, they give it to you, you mail it.”
Bond recommendations for board and public discussion are expected to include possible amount, project list, bond consultant, community survey timeline, community leadership and legal timelines.