MORONGO BASIN — “A nurse’s office where you don’t have a place for a kid to lie down seems counterproductive.” Tom Baumgarten, superintendent of Morongo Unified School District, gestures into the tiny room as he strides through the Twentynine Palms Junior High School office Thursday.
He wants to show some of the shortcomings of the buildings on this campus, opened in 1934. The office halls wouldn’t accommodate someone in a wheelchair; there are lots of hidden corners and blind spots that don’t make sense in today’s era of school shootings; and parts of the ceiling in the gym are falling off.
“The average age of our schools is 42 years,” Baumgarten said.
“The schools have done a good job of taking care of their facilities,” he said, but age and use are taking a toll.
Baumgarten and other school staffers will be providing information on Measure O, a bond measure to fund building improvements at local schools, Sunday and Monday at the Twentynine Palms and Yucca Valley Stater Bros. markets, Home Depot and downtown Joshua Tree.
On Nov. 6 ballots, the bond measure would provide $62 million to the school district for construction, renovation and repairs. It would add an estimated $55 per $100,000 of a property’s assessed value to annual property taxes.
With repayments of an earlier school bond measure, passed in 2005, the total cost to property owners will be about 33 cents a day, Baumgarten said.
The 2005 bond paid for new classrooms, better access for students with physical challenges, shade structures, playground equipment, renovated bathrooms, security cameras and more.
It also helped pay for the new Joshua Tree Elementary School.
Baumgarten hopes voters will support the new bond to make more improvements in public schools. Security systems, computer lab renovations and roof replacements are all on the list.
“My goal is to have everyone who goes to local schools to have the ability to stay in their community, have well-paying jobs, and see their kids go to the schools they went to,” he said.
To achieve that, you have to have jobs and a community that’s desirable to live in — and for that, you have to have good schools, the superintendent said.
Floating a bond measure at a time when so many agencies are instituting new taxes and fees can feel like an uphill battle. When they voted to place Measure O on the ballot months ago, school trustees didn’t know the county fire department was planning on putting a new $156 annual fee on most Basin property taxes.
“The timing of that wasn’t good,” he acknowledged.
But he doesn’t know that he’d delay Measure O if he could. The slow gears of government mean it takes about five years before any school district project can get approved by the state. With costs of labor, equipment and supplies rising every year, he wants to have bond money ready to go forward on renovations as soon as possible.
“If I’m not successful now, I’m going to have the obligation to do this again in another couple of years, because costs only go up,” he said.
While an official anti-Measure O movement hasn’t sprung up, Baumgarten said he has heard critics question if Morongo Unified is mismanaging its money.
“The opposite is true,” he said. “We recently refinanced the 2005 bond measure.”
The refinancing will save property owners over $8.2 million in taxes as the bonds are paid off, according to MUSD.
Morongo Unified is also the only school district in California’s history to receive money from the state’s emergency earthquake funds, Baumgarten said. The $5.2 million grant helped pay for the new Joshua Tree Elementary School.
He also hopes the district’s track record with the 2005 bond money will encourage “yes” votes. A panel of citizens not associated with the school district oversaw the spending, and a similar panel will be appointed if Measure O passes this month.
A full report of spending from the previous bond is available on the school district’s website, www.morongousd.com.
Projects for the new bond, if it passes, are also listed there in the facilities master plan.
Baumgarten hopes he and school staffs will be able to provide lots of voters with information as they do their public outreach Sunday and Monday.
“We have kids who go out of the area and compete at other schools and they come back and feel they aren’t getting the same quality students in other areas have,” he said.
“It’s a different situation here in the Morongo Basin compared to some better-off areas, but we can strive.”