LOCAL ELECTIONS / FALLBROOK SCHOOL BOND ISSUE : Same Idea, New Tack on School Bond

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

For the third time in two years, voters in the small but growing Fallbrook Union High School District are being asked to approve a bond issue to ease crowding at their 25-year-old high school.

Although no one knows whether the outcome will be different this year, the campaign to make room for the school's swelling enrollment has taken a new tack. Rather than school board trustees carrying the weight of informing the public, as they have in the past, members of the community have stepped forward to try to impress upon their neighbors, friends and fellow residents that there is a desperate need for the $20-million bond issue.

"We took a back seat this time," trustee P. K. Martin said. "We're really hopeful that, since the board isn't promoting things . . . that people will see the need and respond to it."

Twice in 1990, the bond issue failed to receive the two-thirds majority required for approval. In June of that year, the bond issue gathered support from 65% of voters, falling short of two-thirds by 150 votes. By November, support had dropped to 54%. (A previous attempt at a high school bond issue, in 1978, also failed.)

Martin said school board members have been so impassioned in previous campaigns that they didn't state their case clearly enough. For some voters, she said, past elections became as much a referendum on the board's performance as a ballot on crowding.

The board further injured its credibility last year when frustrated trustees considered a special assessment district that would have taxed property owners without their explicit consent. Hundreds of residents complained about the proposed district, some threatened a recall, and the board dropped the idea.

For this election, the board appointed citizen committees to study the crowding problem and to lead the campaign for approval of Proposition N.

Jeff Lyon was one of the people to volunteer.

Lyon, an architect, agreed to lead a community workshop, which met regularly for about seven months last year to analyze the need for renovating the current high school and building a new one. Because the board had lost some of the community's confidence, people had to determine the facts for themselves, he said.

In addition to his time spent with the workshop group, Lyon has made several presentations to community groups and residents.

"There were a lot of emotional issues out there," he said, "but I wanted to get them to focus on what the real physical and structural issues were."

Fallbrook High School was built in 1967 to hold 1,200 students. The use of portable buildings on the campus increased its capacity to 1,800. Yet, 2,300 students are now squeezed into the school.

Every year this decade, incoming freshman classes are expected to exceed the size of graduating classes. By the 1999-2000 school year, an enrollment of 4,100 is projected.

Proposition N is different than the previous bond measures, which focused on building a high school on Gird Road, on land the district already owns. Instead, the measure would devote $10.7 million to renovating the existing campus and $9.3 million to begin developing a new school at the Gird Road site.

The cost of building a new high school, and renovating and expanding Fallbrook High, is estimated at $44 million. Another bond measure or aid from the state would be needed to raise the money to complete the high school.

If approved, Proposition N would add $8.43 a year for every $100,000 of assessed valuation to a property owner's tax bill, or $14.83 for the average property owner, Martin said.

If the bond measure fails, district officials say, they will be forced to consider a year-round calendar or double sessions for the school.

The school board asked a retired Marine Corps instructor, Jack Boline, to coordinate the effort to get the bond issue approved.

"Our primary emphasis has been on information, to get factual stuff out to people," said Boline, who taught at Camp Pendleton's amphibious warfare school. "The bottom line is that that high school is overcrowded. . . . It looks like the proverbial jailbreak between the change of classes."

Although Boline said most people seem to be receptive to his committee's flyers, newspaper advertisements, meetings and one-on-one discussions, he's still not voicing any confidence over the vote's outcome.

"We think at least two-thirds agree that the high school is overcrowded, and something should be done," he said. "It's how to go about it" that creates opposition.

Some of that opposition is being led by a few small groups of property owners, such as the Citizens for Common Sense Education.

"We just don't think it is a very good bond issue, the way they plan to use the money," said Helen Sanford, one of the half dozen or so members of the citizens group. "They should have one bond issue for improvement of the existing campus" and another to raise money for building a new high school, she said.

Although Sanford said she is concerned about the severe crowding at the high school, she added, "We'd like them to do one thing at a time."

Sanford and some of the group's members live in the vicinity of the Gird Road site for which the new high school is proposed. She said residents in the area are worried that a school would bring in too much traffic.

They also argue that the location makes little sense because it is far from the faster-growing areas of the community.

Boline said he can understand why some residents don't like the idea of a high school in their back yard. And he can understand the elderly on fixed incomes being opposed to an increased tax. But, when one considers the needs of the students attending the high school, he said, it's hard for him to understand how anyone could oppose the bond issue.

"This all boils down to people accepting the fact that it's overcrowded," Boline said. "It's real."

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