Measure A: Residents will vote on $517 million bond for high schools
Updated: Feb 17
Tiburon Peninsula residents will be among those voting March 5 on a $517-million bond measure to modernize the Tamalpais Union High School District’s five campuses. While advocates say the funding is needed to make critical upgrades to decades-old buildings, critics have questioned the total cost of repaying the bond, estimated at about $1 billion after interest over its 30-year term, and claim the improvements are unfairly focused on the district’s two largest schools, Redwood and Tamalpais.
If approved by 55% of school district voters, Measure A, as it will appear on the ballot, would levy an annual tax of $30 per $100,000 of assessed value on properties in the district, which includes Tiburon, Belvedere, Strawberry and more than a dozen other communities along the Highway 101 corridor south and west of San Rafael. The assessed value is based on the purchase price of a home and cannot increase by more than 2% each year.
The parcel tax would be levied starting in fiscal year 2024-2025, which begins July 1, and would sunset in fiscal year 2052-2053. The district estimates that the total debt service, including principal and interest, would be $1.04 billion.
The tax is expected to generate about $36 million annually to repay the bond, which will be used for campus updates, including repairing and replacing roofs, as well as 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.
Among the priority improvements identified are two major projects at Redwood and Tamalpais high schools, located in Larkspur and Mill Valley, respectively, which are the main public high schools attended by students from the Tiburon Peninsula. A $107-million plan at Redwood would demolish the existing art and music portables and replace them with a new cafeteria, a two-story art building and a new music building, while a $90-million plan at Tamalpais would demolish five buildings and replace them with a new three-building Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math complex with updated classrooms, a music center and an auto shop.
Under state law, Measure A revenues can’t be used for teacher and administrator salaries or other operating expenses, including pensions.
“This measure was a result of identifying both significant upgrades that need to happen to our infrastructure, like plumbing, electric, roofs, safety issues, (Americans with Disabilities Act) access, and then it’s a combination of that with improvement to our educational facilities,” said Emily Uhlhorn, a Tam district board member who has also been a part of the all-volunteer “Yes on Measure A” campaign.
District identifies key projects across five schools
Uhlhorn and other supporters of the measure point to the need to repair or replace aging infrastructure to serve the district’s 4,800 students at its campuses, which also include Archie Williams High School in San Anselmo, alternative school Tamiscal and continuation school San Andreas, both in Larkspur. According to the district, the buildings at Redwood and Archie Williams are more than 60 years old, while many of the buildings at Tamalpais are more than 100 years old.
The district last made major facilities upgrades nearly 20 years ago, after voters approved a $79.9-million bond measure in 2006 that funded the construction of Keyser and Barrow halls at Tamalpais school and the renovation of classrooms and the gym at Redwood, among other projects.
The median homeowner pays about $150 annually toward the 2006 bond, which the district expects to pay off entirely in about five years, said Corbett Elsen, the district’s assistant superintendent of business and operations.
The new proposed improvements at each school site were identified during a facilities planning process that was completed in spring 2022. The district met with architects and other professionals to assess the condition of its buildings and estimates it engaged hundreds of stakeholders — including students, staff, administrators, parents and community members — in a variety of discussions and surveys to identify priority projects to be completed over the next 15 years or so.
At Redwood, the facilities plan identified about $148 million in improvements, categorized into different priority levels, with the highest including mechanical, electrical, plumbing, irrigation, roofing and disability-access improvements.
“Priority 2” projects include the new cafeteria, music and art buildings, as well as athletics improvements and energy-efficiency upgrades including solar water heating.
At Tamalpais, the plan identifies about $107 million in improvements, with top-priority projects including disability-access, athletic and student-wellness facilities and fire-safety improvements.
Second-priority projects include asphalt and energy-efficiency improvements and a $1-million shade structure.
Some $37.8 million in upgrades were identified in the plan for Archie Williams High School, with top-priority projects including the creation of outdoor learning environments and upgrades to mechanical, electrical and plumbing infrastructure and disability access.
The plan calls for about $26 million in upgrades at Tamiscal — that campus currently consists of all portable classrooms, which will be converted into permanent rooms, Uhlhorn said — and $5 million in upgrades at San Andreas High School.
Elsen said that while all the projects listed in the facilities plan would be addressed if Measure A passes, the cost estimates for work at each school are now likely outdated, given market conditions and building-code changes.
Uhlhorn noted the COVID pandemic prompted a more critical look at the district’s facilities. For example, she said, when physical-distancing rules were in place, requiring students and teachers to remain 6 feet from each other at all times, the district realized “many of our classrooms are really undersized relative to the average size of classrooms across the state of California,” adding that disadvantage “impacted our ability to get back to in-person school.”
She also noted that there have been changes in laws about HVAC requirements and filtration systems in schools, something that’s also become an issue with the impacts of climate change, including heat waves and smoky days from wildfires.
“Through COVID and fire days and extreme heat days, we’ve seen the result of either super, super hot or smoky classrooms, and that’s not conducive to learning,” Uhlhorn said.
The district wants to ensure its classrooms are conducive to modern teaching and learning, including updating technology and providing more opportunities for students to collaborate, she said.
“The right space and educational facilities enhance teaching and learning, whereas the ones that are out of date actually detract from teaching and learning,” she said.
Critics say district is focused on ‘unnecessary’ projects
However, the bond measure has drawn vocal opposition, including from the Coalition of Sensible Taxpayers, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that aims to represent the interests of Marin taxpayers and has launched an independent “No on Measure A” campaign.
“Our contention is that Measure A is unfair, it’s unnecessary, unaffordable and, most importantly, it funds the wrong things,” said Mimi Willard, the group’s founder and president. “We think that it actually hurts both the students and the community.”
If the district is seeking public funding, she said, that money should go directly to educating students. She pointed to the district’s most recent standardized-test results, which showed overall declines in math and English scores from the previous year and a persistent achievement gap among the district’s Black and Latino students, who lagged behind their white and Asian peers in math and English proficiency.
“We think the real problem is that student outcomes are not what they should be and that class sizes have gotten larger while the teaching staff has been reduced,” Willard said.
While she said the district conducted a “disciplined” facilities planning process, she criticized the district for seeking a bond measure to fund all the projects identified rather than just those categorized as top priorities in the plan.
“Instead, they decided to go for the maximum amount of bond money you’re allowed to put on the ballot at one time, and that quickly increased the size of this tax measure,” she said.
She noted the single largest project to be funded by the bond is the $107-million plan to build three new buildings at Redwood; the “No on Measure A” campaign has called that project “an unnecessary gold-plated cafeteria.”
Willard questioned the need for the new cafeteria, pointing to the district’s own projections of declining enrollment over the next several years.
“Why is the most important thing a substantially larger place to feed students, many of whom go off campus for lunch, not because the food’s better but because they want to go away from school?” she said.
She also questioned the overall equity of the bond measure, noting most funding goes to the two high-profile projects at Tamalpais and Redwood, with no comparable projects at Archie Williams.
The proposed bond measure has simply ballooned to fund “too many things that aren’t necessary,” Willard said, adding she feels the district hasn’t been as transparent as it could be about the total repayment cost of the bond being $1.04 billion with interest.
“People want to know what they’re actually going to pay,” she said.
An argument against the measure filed with the Marin Elections Department and signed by Julia Violich, a board member of the Marin County Bicycle Coalition, former San Anselmo Mayor Matthew Brown and former Corte Madera Mayor James Andrews, echoes the concerns of Willard and the Coalition of Sensible Taxpayers.
Officials decry opponents’ ‘misrepresentations’
Uhlhorn said she was “disheartened” by the “misrepresentations” of bond-measure opponents, pointing directly to the claim that the project at Redwood is simply a “gold-plated cafeteria.”
“They’re conflating the cost of the cafeteria with the cost to either rebuild or upgrade (three) buildings at Redwood,” she said. “It’s a complete red herring.”
She noted Redwood’s current cafeteria was originally built as an outdoor covered space that was eventually enclosed. It seats about 150 students, while Redwood’s enrollment is about 1,800. She also noted a new state law last year requires all school districts to serve breakfast to any student who wants it; since then, she said, the district has been serving meals to about 800 students a day.
“We don’t have the facilities today to prepare the food, serve the food or for the students to eat the food,” she said.
Uhlhorn disputed the claim that the measure favors some campuses over others.
“Equity is about equal outcomes. It’s not about needing the same thing to get there,” she said. “What we’re aiming for at the end of the day are equal facilities across all five of our sites.”
The Archie Williams campus, she said, doesn’t need as much work as Tamalpais and Redwood, noting its portable classrooms don’t need to be replaced and that it already has about 10 more classrooms than Tamalpais school, despite serving several hundred fewer students. She cited other factors, including the school’s topography and the fact that its buildings are all one-story, that contribute to lower construction costs for projects on the campus.
She also called opponents’ focus on the bond’s estimated $1.04 billion repayment “inflammatory,” noting that the $30 per $100,000 of assessed value is not out of line with what other school districts in the county have pursued with bond measures and that all school districts talk about bond measures in terms of the total revenue they expect to generate rather than the total cost of repayment with interest.
“Using the billion-dollar number is not standard in any financial industry,” Uhlhorn said. “Unfortunately, it’s a number that sticks in people’s heads when it doesn’t accurately reflect the bond.”
With less than a month until Election Day, campaigns for both sides of the measure are focusing on voter outreach and education. Willard noted the “No on Measure A” effort has raised money for a mailer and has focused on door-knocking to speak with potential voters.
The “Yes on Measure A” campaign has conducted similar outreach, Uhlhorn said, noting one of the biggest challenges is the sheer size of the district, which has more than 80,000 registered voters.
She said if the measure fails, the district will have to try again in a future election, adding that any additional time needed to pass a bond measure will only result in more projects with higher construction costs.
“The needs are so significant, and the needs only get more extensive the longer you wait,” she said.
However, she said she’s optimistic the measure will have enough support at the polls to pass in March, noting the district has done its due diligence in the facilities planning process.
“I feel like to the extent that we can get in front of voters, they will come away saying, ‘Oh yeah, this is necessary, and I recognize that good schools are good for the entire county,’” she said.
To read the full text of the measure, the city attorney’s analysis and the full argument in favor, see the county voter information guide mailed Jan. 25 or visit marinvotes.org.
Reach Assistant Editor Emily Lavin, The Ark’s education and youth reporter, at 415-944-3841.