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Measure A: Race is close for $517-million Tam district schools measure

Updated: Mar 25

A week after voters went to the polls, the fate of a $517-million bond measure that would fund facility upgrades at Tamalpais Union High School District campuses remained too close to call.


Measure A was earning 52% approval in the March 5 election, just under the 55% threshold needed to pass, as of March 8, the latest results available at The Ark’s press time. The gap represented about 675 votes of the 22,811 counted in the race, though nearly half of all Marin ballots remain to be counted, according to election officials.

 Tiburon voters are giving the measure 55% support, while Belvedere voters were split exactly 50-50.


Residents of the high school district, which includes Tiburon, Belvedere, Strawberry and more than a dozen other communities along the Highway 101 corridor into Central Marin, would pay an annual tax of $30 per $100,000 of assessed property value if the measure passes, or about $25 a month per $1 million. The assessed value is based on the purchase price of a home and cannot increase by more than 2% each year.


If it passes, the parcel tax would be levied starting July 1 and would sunset in fiscal year 2052-2053 to generate about $36 million annually toward paying off the estimated total debt service, including principal and interest, of $1.04 billion, a sticking point for many voters.


The money would be used for campus upgrades, including repairing and replacing roofs, plumbing and heating and cooling systems; updating classrooms; completing Americans with Disabilities Act upgrades; repairing or replacing portable classrooms; and installing, repairing and replacing security, fire, lighting and other safety systems.


Those on both sides of the measure say they remain hopeful their efforts will result in their ideal outcome.

 “We spent almost three years looking at the needs for the district,” said Emily Uhlhorn, a Tamalpais district board member and supporter of the measure.


She has two children who graduated from Tamalpais High School and two who are now freshmen. She was the Parent Teachers Association president when her older children were at Tam.


“We have a combination of different types of needs, but many of them are urgent. We are going to need to address them.”


For the Coalition of Sensible Taxpayers, a largely anti-tax Marin group that lobbied against the measure, many facility upgrades seem unnecessary, detract from improvements they say would more directly help the quality of education for students and drain money from residents they say are close to being priced out of Marin.


“I think my primary concern is that we’re doing some things that aren’t necessary at the expense of people for whom it’s financially painful,” said co-founder Mimi Willard of Kentfield.


According to the district, the buildings at Redwood and Archie Williams high schools are more than 60 years old, while many of the buildings at Tam are more than 100 years old. Those who worked to develop the measure argue facilities need urgent repair and improved infrastructure that meets a modern, more collaborative atmosphere necessary for student learning.


“You can’t have quality learning environments for students and staff without safe and modern learning environments,” said Corbett Elsen, assistant superintendent of business and operations at the school district. “It’s one and the same.”


The district last made major facility upgrades nearly 20 years ago, after voters approved a $79.9-million bond measure in 2006 to build Keyser and Barrow halls at Tam High and renovate classrooms and the gym at Redwood, among other projects.


For the latest bond, the district drafted a facilities master plan in spring 2022 with a prioritized list of projects to complete over the next 15 years. Before creating the plan, architects and school-construction experts assessed all facilities, while staff collected and analyzed feedback from more than 775 school and community stakeholders.


Officials then created three priority levels of projects, with critics saying the district should have focused on a smaller, more focused measure targeting only the top priorities, which would have reduced the bond measure by nearly $200 million.


About half of the bond as placed on the ballot is slated for improvements at Redwood and Tam, located in Larkspur and Mill Valley, respectively, and the main public high schools attended by Tiburon Peninsula students.


The plan calls for about $148 million in improvements at Redwood, with top priorities including mechanical, electrical, plumbing, irrigation, roofing and disability-access improvements. Lower priorities include building a new cafeteria, music and art buildings as well as athletics improvements and energy-efficiency upgrades, including a solar water-heating system.

 Some critics honed in on the $107 million that would be used there to demolish the existing art and music portables and replace them with a new cafeteria, a two-story art building and a new music building — repeatedly claiming the money was for the cafeteria alone.


Another $107 million in improvements is planned for Tamalpais High, with $90 million to demolish five buildings and replace them with a new three-building STEAM complex — science, technology, engineering, arts and math — with updated classrooms, a music center and an auto shop. Top priority projects include improving disability-access, athletic and student-wellness facilities and fire-safety improvements. Lower priorities are asphalt and energy-efficiency improvements and a $1-million shade structure. 


Projects at Archie Williams High School in San Anselmo and Tamiscal High School, an alternative school in Larkspur are estimated to cost $37.8 million and $26 million respectively. Officials identified projects to create outdoor learning environments; upgrade mechanical, electrical and plumbing infrastructure; and improve disability access. At Tamiscal High School, officials will convert the campus — all portable classrooms — to permanent rooms. About $5 million would be used for upgrades at San Andreas High School, a continuation school in Larkspur. 


Under state law, Measure A revenues can’t be used for teacher and administrator salaries or other operating expenses, including pensions. 


“The state of California doesn’t provide any money for facilities, so a facilities bond is the only mechanism the district has in which to fund facilities upgrades,” Uhlhorn said. “We have a number of buildings that are significantly outdated. … We have portables that are dilapidated and falling part, but we also have undersized classrooms and outmoded science labs and math classrooms.”

 She said it can be more difficult for people to understand the importance of upgrading facilities for teaching and learning, which she suggests may have contributed to fewer people voting “yes” on the measure.


“I think it’s more nuanced to understand the impact to teaching and learning from facilities than it is if you’re trying to pass a parcel tax which is directly equated with teacher salaries,” Uhlhorn said.


But Willard said the millions of dollars that went into developing the bond measure could have been used in the classroom to fund more teachers and reduce class sizes.


She said the coalition would have preferred a smaller, more focused bond measure with only priority-1 projects, because lower-priority projects increased the overall request by about 57%.


She said she supports a new classroom building at Tam High but does not see the purpose of new cafeteria, music and arts buildings at Redwood.


“You have to balance (the measure) against the fact that, as we were knocking on doors across the county, we definitely came across some people who are one or two tax measures away from basically being taxed out of their homes,” she said.


Willard also contended the measure lacked transparency.


“We felt that there wasn’t real clearness about the full price to people in the ballot language, which is that’s a billion dollars with the interest,” she said. She said she felt the ballot question just included language that polled well and did not define the larger uses of the money.


However, supporters of the measure urge that it is better to fund these projects now rather than later as costs will only go up, especially as construction costs have escalated since the COVID-19 pandemic, said school-district President Leslie Harlander.


She said she recognizes the bond amount may seem substantial to voters but that the rate is the same for other schools. “This is a large district, so the value of the bond itself is sizeable.”


Reach Naomi Friedland at 415-944-4627.



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