Lea Nepomuceno, a rising senior at Scripps Ranch High School, is shown before a San Diego Unified School District board meeting, July 26, 2022. Nepomuceno is a student board member and active in advocacy and education efforts related to gun violence prevention. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

With mass shootings continuing in schools across the country, San Diego Unified leaders are going to voters in November for approval to borrow $3.2 billion to pay for security and safety improvements.

The district Board of Education unanimously voted on the bond package Tuesday. If approved by district voters, $296 million would pay for security and safety improvements, with remaining funds going to renovate facilities and address a backlog of deferred maintenance. 

The borrowing plan is the district’s fourth in 15 years, totaling $11.5 billion. 

Several community members spoke in support of the bond during public comment Tuesday, with some adding how paramount student safety is. 

Why this matters

Mass school shootings are happening across the country, and security threats have hit local schools as San Diego Unified board members ponder a bond proposal that would include funding for improved security and safety on its campuses.

“As a parent, I know it’s important,” said Sabrina Bazzo, San Diego Unified board vice president, about the proposed safety improvements.

The district’s vote comes on the heels of a summer struck by gun violence after several shootings led to mass casualties. Ten Black people died in May after a white gunman opened fire at a Buffalo, New York, supermarket. In June, a mass shooting took place at a Ulvade, Texas school, resulting in the death of 19 children and two teachers. Then in July, an Independence Day parade outside Chicago turned deadly when a gunman fired more than 70 rounds, injured more than three dozen individuals and killed seven victims.  

The shooting in Uvalde, in particular, set off a familiar debate – in San Diego and elsewhere – over how best to protect children: hardening schools or making it more difficult to purchase guns. 

Richard Barrera, a San Diego Unified board member, says there’s a false political debate backed by gun advocates that the answer to the mass school shooting issue is to equip facilities to improve security instead of restricting guns. The answer, he added, is to do both.

Board member Richard Barrera, center, is shown at a San Diego Unified School District board meeting, July 26, 2022. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

“It’s about putting all of the elements in place, the technology and the physical protections, to try to guard against these situations,” he said. 

Technology like emergency communications systems are needed so that teachers are able to talk with administration or law enforcement from their classrooms if ever in a dangerous situation such as an active shooter on campus, he said. Other security improvements the district aims to address include fencing, secure single-entry points to campus, lighting, security cameras and automatic door locks. 

San Diego Unified students also have the safety of their school communities on their mind. 

For Shukriya Osman, a rising senior at Patrick Henry High School, it’s frightening to think about the open design of her school and what she would need to do if ever faced with an active shooter. 

“Having those conversations shouldn’t be something that’s very common, but it is,” she said. 

San Diego students are not immune from threats 

A day before students at Patrick Henry High School got ready to walk out of classes in early June against gun violence, shooter threats against the school surfaced, said Osman, adding that the school notified her through email the afternoon before the walkout.

“We were all very scared,” she said, that a shooter threat was made against our campus. “We literally had to take a break from organizing. Like, is this real? Is this gonna happen?”

Anticipating the worst, many students that day chose to not show up despite the threat being ruled unsubstantiated the day before, said Osman, who helped organize the walk out along with other student activists. It was determined that the threat was a misunderstanding of conversation overheard by the individual reporting the matter, said Samer Naji, facilities communications supervisor for the district.

It was Osman’s first time experiencing such a threat after transferring from a private San Diego school last year. But the situation wasn’t out of the ordinary for some of her PHHS peers, who told her security threats are common at the school.

During the 2021-2022 school year, there were 113 potential criminal threat calls for service reported to the communications center, said Naji. 

“While each threat is taken seriously and is investigated, not all were credible and led to a security action,” he said.

Active shooter threats have hit close to home for San Diego Unified schools in the last four months. Students at Taft Middle School in Serra Mesa received threatening messages of a possible shooter on campus in June. The incident at Taft followed a threat of a possible shooter which prompted lockdowns at a total of six secondary, middle and elementary schools in the Black Mountain Ranch and 4S Ranch communities in May and at Lincoln High School in March. 

Naji said schools in the district practice lockdown drills twice a year, with school police conducting training in options-based response, allowing for evacuation unlike the traditional lockdown where individuals can only remain in hiding until the situation is announced as clear.

Lea Nepomuceno, a rising senior at Scripps Ranch High School, is shown before a San Diego Unified School District board meeting, July 26, 2022. Nepomuceno is a student board member and active in advocacy and education efforts related to gun violence prevention. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

Osman said she has mixed feelings about her safety at school, especially since her campus has an open design. But she believes that students are fearful of an active shooter no matter what their campus looks like. 

“It’s still like a very scary and very real emotion,” she said.

The reality of school shootings has been overwhelming, said Lea Nepomuceno, one of two San Diego Unified student board members. Nepomuceno is a rising senior at Scripps Ranch High School and since the age of 13 has created several advocacy groups and podcasts to educate youth on gun violence prevention and the criminal justice system. 

“I think it’s also these moments that remind us that … all of us are vulnerable to (gun violence), and because of that we all the more need to make the quantifiable action and change to ensure that our kids are safe at school. That we are safe from gun violence, whether it be urban gun violence, whether it be these school or mass shootings,” said Nepomuceno.

Security improvements in San Diego Unified schools

With funding from previous bonds approved by voters, so far the district has been able to invest $121.3 million toward school security and more projects are underway.

All San Diego Unified schools have undergone some measure of physical security improvements like perimeter fencing and secure single point of entry and are prioritized by vulnerability significance, said Naji. He adds that emergency communications systems have been installed at more than 60 of the 180 schools, with remaining installments to be completed by the end of 2024.  

The district plans to invest an additional $250 million of the current bonds before 2024 toward school security and safety. Investments in drinking water quality, solar, classroom equipment, technology infrastructure, joint use athletic fields and charter school projects were also made possible through those bonds.

Like previous bonds, this new bond would also fund water filtration systems, improve air quality in school buildings, solar panels and other energy sustainability projects. It would also fund asbestos remediation, classroom technology, the development of new facilities to support education pathways and create affordable housing for employees. 

“We’ve been doing our part and we’ll continue to do our part as part of this bond measure,” Barrera said, referring to making the safety improvements on campuses. “But action on restricting access to these mass weapons is also necessary to protect our kids.” 

San Diego Unified board members have formally asked members of Congress to take action to restrict access to the types of weapons frequently used in mass school shootings.

In June, the board members called on the U.S. Senate to take action against gun violence in a letter and approve the Protect Our Kids Act, legislation passed by the House in June. The bill would raise the legal age to buy some semi-automatic weapons from 18 to 21, create new federal offenses for gun trafficking and selling large capacity magazines, bolster existing rules on bump stocks, a device attached to the front of the gun enabling it to fire more rapidly, and ban ghost guns, which are untraceable and unserialized firearms that can be bought over the internet and assembled at home. Measures to improve school safety and the regulation of gun sales were approved by the San Diego County Board of Supervisors just days after the House passed the bill, allowing the county to file liability claims against firearms businesses for violence associated with the guns it sells. 

But Haney Hong, president and CEO of the San Diego County Taxpayers Association, a nonprofit, nonpartisan public policy think tank and government watchdog group, said funding deferred maintenance with borrowed money will cost voters double because the bond money will need to be paid back with interest. Moreover, it wouldn’t be smart to fund technology with a bond when the length of financing is longer than the life of the technology, he said.   

While we acknowledge that there is deferred maintenance that has to get done, borrowing money is not necessarily the best way to tackle this,” Hong said, adding that he questions the district’s management of previous bonds.

Every election cycle, the organization reviews bond proposals that will be placed on the ballot to ensure that taxpayers money is being used effectively and efficiently. The association originally supported the district’s first bond in 2008, opposed their 2012 proposal over funding used to pay deferred maintenance and has yet to share a formal stance on the new proposal.  

Even though some items listed on the new bond proposal are similar to what the district stated it needed when pitching the previous bonds, a 2019 audit on Props S and Z and Measure YY, the most recent audit available, shows that the district was in compliance and some projects were under budget. 

Barrera said the district can promise voters that there will be no tax increase as a result of this bond by keeping their current tax rate for the new bond. But Hong argues that although the district can project that there will be no tax increase, that’s not something they can guarantee.

“Conditions change and if conditions change and they have the authority to still… borrow the money. And then we all get saddled with the bill with the current conditions,” Hong said, adding that the only thing that can be guaranteed is that they won’t exceed the state limit.

However, Jeff Vincent, director of public infrastructure initiatives at Center for Cities and Schools, said there is a way the district can promise a no tax increase. If the district plans on paying off a current bond before the new one issues, they can structure its amount and number of years it’s paid off the same as the bond that’s sunsetting, or being paid off, he said.

“Like on your property tax bill, you wouldn’t see any change. It would be as if that line item or that bond just kind of continued, but it’s actually another bond,” Vincent said.

Many school bonds placed on the ballot were failing to be approved until 2000, when Prop 39 passed, reducing the supermajority needed to approve a bond from 65 percent to 55 percent, he said. He adds that since then, a higher percentage of local school bonds are approved each year that wouldn’t have otherwise been passed. 

More school bonds would have been approved between June 1986 and March 2000 if the 55 percent requirement would’ve been in place then according to past success rates, reports the California Budget and Policy Center.

“It’s somewhat easier for school districts to be successful, but there’s still a fair amount of accountability measures on that. They still have to convince voters that there’s a need, so it’s definitely not a slam dunk,” he said.

Although the chances of a school bond passing has improved since Prop 39, there’s been a slight drop in the number of school bonds that have been successful the last couple of years, he said.

In spite of the odds, Barrera said he’s optimistic that voters will once again vote yes on the school bond measure. 

He adds that, “San Diegans have consistently said yes to investing in our schools and investing in our kids and I will expect that they will do that again.”

Type of Content

News: Based on facts, either observed and verified directly by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Andrea Figueroa Briseño is an investigative reporter at inewsource and a corps member for Report For America, a national service program that tasks journalists to report on undercovered communities and issues. She covers education and focuses her reporting on Latino students and families who are part...