HomeBlocksFront-GridCome November, Voters to Decide on Burbank School District’s Financial Future

Come November, Voters to Decide on Burbank School District’s Financial Future

Voters will decide the fate of the financially encumbered Burbank Unified School District during the general election this November, when a facilities bond measure will land on ballots.

BUSD Board of Education members Thursday unanimously approved putting the matter up to a city election to authorize the bond, which would generate $450 million in funding to be used for school site repairs and maintenance over the next two decades.

“This evening is the culmination of about 14 months of work that we have been doing within the district office,” said Andrew Cantwell, assistant superintendent of administrative services.

In February 2023, the district hired Perkins-Eastman, an architecture and design firm, to make an assessment of the district’s two dozen school sites. It estimated $1.13 billion in recommended fixes and upgrades, a sobering number for district leaders who are working to mitigate a drop in funding caused by declining enrollment.

And with the threat of cuts to state education funding on the horizon, as Sacramento deals with a watershed budget deficit crisis, BUSD administrators have said that generating new funding for facilities will be critical so that the district can continue providing quality education programs and paying staff.

According to the consultant’s report, Burbank schools have been well-maintained, but three-fourths of the buildings owned by the district are more than 60 years old, and myriad repairs will be necessary to keep them running over the next 10 years.

Of the $1.13 billion in repairs across school sites identified in the report, interior modernization, HVAC, and other routine improvements and maintenance were given the highest priority.

The $450 million in funding generated by the bond can only be used for physical school site repairs over the next 12 years, not wages or other uses, officials said.

The bond, called a general obligation bond, won’t raise taxes, but if approved will enact a rate extension on existing bonds already passed by Burbank voters — one in 1997 that is due to be paid off in 2026, and another passed in 2013 that will sunset in 2038. A general obligation bond is a long-term borrowing tool, generally seen as the least costly financing option to raise money for potential facilities projects.

If approved, Burbank property owners would continue to pay about $55 per $100,000 of assessed value per year to pay off the bond.

The Board chose to put the bond before voters in November, rather than during the March primary election, to give time for district leaders to meet with community stakeholders to “make sure we are hearing from the community about priorities,” said Cantwell.

Board members also delayed the ballot measure until the community could hear results of an assessment by the state’s fiscal watchdog, the Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team, to ensure the district could responsibly manage the surge in funding following accounting errors that led to a miscalculation of $11 million in 2023.

Last June, BUSD disclosed the $11 million accounting error ahead of the surprise decision to place Superintendent Matt Hill on administrative leave. Of those funds, $8.7 million was intended for district staff raises and vacation pay — which were not provided for in the 2022-23 budget balance. As a result, the district ended last year with a $36 million balance, as opposed to an initial projected $25 million.

FCMAT found that there was no “nefarious intent” surrounding the error.

At Thursday’s School Board meeting, Burbank resident Annie Markarian said the bond represents a “critical investment” in the future of Burbank students and provides much-needed funding to upgrade and modernize the city’s school facilities.

“These improvements will no doubt enhance the learning environment for our students,” Markarian said.

She said the district’s stewardship of state funding has been called into question for years, referencing the $11 million accounting error made last year.

Markarian asked Superintendent John Paramo to provide an update on the changes recommended by FCMAT following the accounting error.

“It is incumbent on [Mr. Paramo] to implement process improvements and report out before the November election. Otherwise, how does our Burbank community reestablish our trust in you to oversee a $500 million bond?” she asked.

Paramo responded and said that implementing those changes is the BUSD financial team’s number one priority.

“I know that the accounting error that occurred shook the trust of some community members. I think that’s the reason why we brought out the state bulldogs for the budget,” Paramo said. “Because we wanted the community to know that we weren’t trying to hide anything.”

Other public speakers were not supportive of the bond measure.

“It’s going to hurt our community. It’s going to hurt our senior citizens. It’s going to hurt people on a fixed income. It’s going to hurt the disabled, and it’s going to hurt our poor people,” Burbank resident Joel Schlossman said. “I think the point of all this is that you’re insensitive to the needs of our community.”

Board member Steve Ferguson said that BUSD has been in facilities situations like this before in recent decades, and said “it took hundreds of millions to get these schools up to where they need to be today. This is the dollars and cents brass tacks kind of bill that we need to pass now,” he said. “The need is so great, the need is so significant.”

The bond measure will need to garner the support of at least 55% of voters come November to pass. If successful, the Board could seek additional funding to bolster the wages of teachers and district staff via a parcel tax on the 2026 ballot.

First published in the April 20 print issue of the Burbank Leader.

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