Estancia has years to wait for new theater

In 2005, Newport-Mesa's four high schools were promised new performing arts centers.

Since then, Newport Harbor High School's revamped facility opened in 2009. Corona del Mar and Costa Mesa high school's theaters are starting to take shape.

But construction on Estancia High School's promised facility won't even start for five to seven years, according to Newport-Mesa Unified School District's chief budget official, Deputy Supt. Paul Reed.

"I don't want to seem ungrateful, but at the same time, I don't understand what happened," Estancia drama teacher Pauline Maranian said about the stalled project.

The theater is one of about a dozen projects specifically promised under Measure F, a $282 million bond initiative approved by voters in 2005.

Measure F has funded completed projects like Jim Scott Stadium and those in progress, including the renovations of Mesa and CdM's middle school campuses.

The estimated $27 million theater at Estancia is one of only two explicitly named projects still waiting to be built with the bond money.

A revamp of Davidson Field and its stadium at Newport Harbor could also be stalled until 2020 if it has to wait on Measure F funds, Reed said, but it's possible a one-time infusion of cash from the dissolution of local redevelopment agencies could speed up the process.

School board members recently ranked the Davidson Field project as a top priority for available funding.

The Measure F delay is attributed to the district's inability to sell the remaining $100 million worth of bonds available without triggering a boost to property tax rates, just what the ballot initiative promised wouldn't happen, Reed said.

"We've honored that," school board trustee Martha Fluor said. "And I'm sure if there hadn't been a recession, we'd be well on our way to meeting the desires and wishes of the community in terms of Measure F, but unfortunately that didn't happen."

For the school district to be able to service its bond debt without raising tax rates, it had to count on the tax base growing, which wasn't a problem in 2005, Reed said.

When the housing market was strong in 2006, Newport-Mesa was able to sell $70 million of bonds without causing a rate increase. That money resulted in the TeWinkle Middle School gym in 2008 and other new buildings.

But when the recession began in 2007, property tax income flattened, Reed said, forcing the district to wait or find a new way to issue bonds if it wanted to keep up construction.

In 2011, the school board approved selling about $95 million of what are known as capital appreciation bonds.

This type of debt defers all payment — even interest. It has allowed the district to sell bonds without affecting the current property tax rate, though it will ultimately have to pay more for the privilege.

The district decided to issue the bonds in 2011 to take advantage of low construction costs during the recession, Reed said.

Although the cost to repay the capital appreciation bonds could be more than six times their original principal, according to a Los Angeles Times estimate, Reed said the district's other bonds are more manageable — around three or four times the original principal — and should all be repayable under current property tax rates.

Noting that the high-cost bonds can be refinanced, he said he feels

"very confident in everything we've issued to date, including the capital appreciation bonds."

Those bonds are currently funding the construction of the middle school enclaves and theaters at CdM and Mesa.

For Measure F's last $100 million, though, Reed recommends the school board wait until property taxes recover, pushing the start of construction on the performing arts center and Davidson Field as far off as 2020.

"The Estancia performing arts center was queued up and would have probably been built right now except that the great recession hits and you have this slowdown of property tax growth," Reed told the school board at its latest meeting.

Maranian said she's fond of the Estancia's current theater, which seats about 240 people, but she's intimately aware of its limitations.

The converted lecture hall can be hard to find and nearby classes are often disrupted when her performers are in full swing. A new building could solve these problems, she said.

"I don't like to see them having to wait until 2020," said Fluor, who has a granddaughter at Estancia. But she deferred to Reed's analysis.

In Maranian's 18 years at the school, she has been grateful for improvements like new lighting and seating but regrets that the big upgrade has been elusive.

"I personally have heard so many promises throughout the years that I don't hold my breath any more," she said.

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