The idea of a spacious, well-appointed high school is like the concept of "peace in our time"--hard to argue with but difficult to translate into reality.
Since 1978, the Fallbrook Union High School District has made three futile attempts to persuade voters that they should approve property tax increases to finance construction of a second high school for the growing community.
Too few voters have heeded the call. Fourteen years ago, a $14-million bond measure died at the polls, as did a $35-million bond issue put before the voters in June, 1990, and a $35-million measure only five months later.
Now, school officials are optimistically trying again, but with seven days before the election, school board critics are predicting that this fourth effort is also doomed.
"You've probably already lost," local resident and political consultant Kit-Bacon Gressitt recently told the school board. He complained that the school board waited too long to forge a campaign strategy, organize volunteers and raise money to pass the measure.
The measure, a scaled-down $20-million bond proposal, will appear on the June 2 ballot. It asks property owners to pay an extra $8.43 a year for every $100,000 of assessed valuation for the next 25 years.
Or as school board President P.K. Martin says, "Less than a postage stamp a week."
Like others before it, the bond measure needs to be approved by two-thirds of the voters to pass. The June, 1990, bond measure came close--winning support of 65% of the voters--just 150 votes shy.
In the November, 1990, election, voter backing dropped to 54%.
Meanwhile, classes are packed at Fallbrook High, designed for 1,800 students but with an enrollment this semester of 2,300.
"The crowding is desperately killing each and every one of us," said senior Jessica Paris, one of 39 students in her English class. The workload is so overwhelming for her teacher that only about half of the essays the students are assigned are graded.
The board's latest effort to raise money is different from past bond campaigns. Most notably, the total sought has been reduced to $20 million.
That lower sum, says a report for the board, "represents the best possible compromise, given the concerns of Fallbrook residents, the current economy and the need to begin the desperately needed work immediately."
Another difference is that past measures would have focused on building an entire new high school on property the district already owns on Gird Road. The new bond issue aims lower.
It would devote $10.7 million to renovate the existing, 25-year-old campus and $9.3 million to begin developing a new school at the Gird Road site. Work would consist of a few permanent buildings and portable classrooms at the new site.
With fingers crossed, the school board predicts that the rest of the new high school will be financed by a future bond measure, or perhaps with money from the state.
The cost of building a new school has climbed 400% since the Gird Road site was purchased in 1967, the district said. Today, the cost of building a new high school, and renovating and expanding Fallbrook High is about $44 million, far more than the district is willing to put on the ballot this June.
Why can't Fallbrook pass a bond issue?
Some residents and participants in the bond wars point to Fallbrook's self-image as a rustic rural town. Building another high school, they say, is too potent a symbol of growth, and "no" votes are a denial of the area's growth.
Others say the school board created ill feeling in the community, which vividly remembers last summer. That's when the board, frustrated by the defeated bond measure, considered a special assessment district that would tax property owners without their explicit consent.
Hundreds of people protested, alleging that such a move amounted to taxation without representation, and the board dropped the plan. But threats of a recall flew, and the battle left a bitterness that refuses to die.
"People are feeling burned," said Gressitt, who forecasts failure for the bond measure.
Another local resident, Tom Cooper, who has opposed past bond measures, agrees that this latest effort hasn't gained a full head of steam.
"They may be in trouble with community support," Cooper said. "Their pitch should be going strong by now, and, so far, they don't even have a pitch."
Despite the track record and the little time remaining to persuade voters, the measure's backers voice optimism.
"Finally, everyone has accepted that the school is overcrowded, and they're saying, 'So what are we going to do about it?' " said Jack Boline, a volunteer coordinator for the bond issue. "That's the major difference between this time and last time."
Supt. Robert Thomas believes that former bond foes will be happier with this measure. He said that, unlike before, when many critics felt too much emphasis had been placed on building the new high school, this time considerable funds will be devoted to renovating the existing one.
But, if this bond measure fails, the district will be forced to consider a year-round calendar, which has proven unpopular in some parts of the county, or go to double sessions, Thomas said.
Caught, and sometimes forgotten, in this battle are the people it is being fought for--the students.
Lunch time at the school is reminiscent of a movie mob scene, with bodies packed into narrow courtyards and long lines winding from concessions. It's not unusual to spend half a lunch period waiting to buy food, only to come away hungry.
"If you don't get there five minutes after the bell rings, the salad is all gone," said senior Rachel Williams. "Today, when I got there, there were no sandwiches left."
All 24 of the school's portable classrooms are packed with students, and more are on the way. Five more portables will be added for the fall semester because 700 freshmen are coming in, and the school is graduating only 475 students, Principal Jim Yahr said.
Some portables are a 10-minute walk from the main part of campus, so students get three extra minutes of travel time at the beginning and end of class. That's six instructional minutes lost, Yahr said, and that adds up over the course of a year.
Fallbrook High has only six restrooms to serve the entire student body. None is near the portables, and two in the aging gym are used only by students in physical education classes.
The students' plight has won some sympathy.
"I'm 67, and I don't have kids in school, but I feel this is real important," said Betty Rupp, who will be working to pass the bond measure. "I've been on this campus from 8 in the morning until 3 in the afternoon, traveling everywhere with students--to class, to the bathroom, to lunch, everywhere. I wanted to know for myself what it's really like.
"It's terrible," Rupp said. "It's not fair. It's not fair to these kids."