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Chet F. Harritt Promised Modernization Additions Without Solid Funding

Chet F. Harritt School is promised modernization additions, with the question of funding left up in the air.

The Santee School District Board of Education took two important votes on the future of construction and on Tuesday. For staff and families anxious for the school to get its own new classroom structure for grades 6-8, the votes amounted to one step forward, and one step left hanging in midair.

In the first vote, the board unanimously approved a staff proposal to build Chet an 8-classroom, two-story structure that would incorporate a Learning Resource Center (what used to be called a library) in its first floor. Under this proposal, the school’s existing library would be converted to a multipurpose room. Construction would begin “as soon as capital funding becomes available.”

However, in a second vote, a 3-2 majority balked at one proposal to raise the capital funding by issuing Qualified School Construction Bond Bond Anticipation Notes  (QSCB BANS). Those voting against the idea were worried that such loans – which would need to be refinanced in five years -- might create budget havoc and jeopardize the if property values inside Santee have not rebounded enough to enable the district to raise enough money through conventional bonds to pay off that debt.

The two votes did not affect the fact the district has already secured enough funding from the state of California to begin modernizing all of the classrooms in Chet F. Harritt and two other schools -- and – as soon as classes end in June. In addition, Hill Creek will be getting a new 10-classroom building.

However, there is currently not enough funding to fund a 10-classroom building for Chet F. Harritt. At a special board meeting at the school in January, school staff, parents and students expressed frustration that Chet was being unfairly left behind other schools in the district modernization.

At that meeting, the district presented three options for Chet. Option one was a two-story 10-classroom structure similar to what had been built for , , and schools, as well as a second new structure for a new multi-purpose room. Option two was one building – the same two-story structure, but with two classrooms replaced by lockers and the Learning Resource Center.  Option three, billed as something the district could afford now and finish by August 2012, was to forgo a new classroom building and instead add onto and refurbish existing structures. 

Most of the community response was an endorsement of option one and a strong rejection of option three. Somewhat lost in the discussion was option two, noted Andy Johnson, principal of Chet F. Harrit. In addressing the board at the Feb. 15 meeting, Johnson said that as more people examined and thought about option two, the more supportive and excited they became.

Some board members expressed concerns that supporting this new structure without securing funding first would unfairly raise hopes of Chet F. Harritt staff and families. Board member Dustin Burns thought it could take as long as five years before construction could begin. Patrick Shaw, district superintendent, asserted that the district was on a nonstop process of scouring for and finding funding from the state and other sources, and predicted that Chet F. Harritt would have its new building up within two or three years.

The district will need to find another way to fund Chet’s expansion following the board’s rejection of Bond Anticipation Notes. Voting for the proposal were board members DianeEl-Hajj and Dan Bartholomew, both of whom noted that federal subsidies would let the school district borrow the money interest-free for five years, and that current bond market conditions and Santee property values meant that not enough money could be raised with General Obligation (GO) bonds.

Voting against the proposal were Burns, Barbara Ryan, and Ken Fox. Ryan was especially skeptical of projections that Santee assessed property values would increase by five percent annually beginning next year, and that without such as real estate recovery the district would face very hard decisions when it came time to pay off the QSSB BANS in five years’ time.

Despite the rejection of the BANS financing, Principal Johnson was very happy about the overall result of the board meeting and what it signified to Chet F. Harrit’s future.

“Christmas didn’t come to us today,” he said to two Chet teachers after the meeting.  “But Santa did promise us what the gift will be.”

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