Concerned residents and Riverside Unified School District (RUSD) board members alike are anticipating robust discussion at tonight’s board meeting as frustrations mount over funding for school improvements.
Funding for much-needed improvement projects within RUSD comes from money allocated from Measure O, which was approved in 2016 by Riverside voters. The measure was designed to upgrade aging RUSD campuses and classrooms, some of which are entering their centennial eras. It also includes money to be spent on new schools. It generates $392 million for these improvements and makes RUSD eligible for an additional $200 million in state funding.
According to Anthony Noriega, vice president of the League of United Latin American Citizens, Riverside council and Eastside community activist, for too long there has been a disparity between schools that receive the help they need.
“The district board is ignoring needs and concerns of the community and have consistently taken action that has been detrimental to the Eastside community,” he said. “They’ve made some promises that they’ve never fulfilled.”
Noriega referred to when 10 years ago, the Eastside community was told by RUSD their neighborhood would have their own $12 million elementary school, rather than having to bus their children miles away for schooling. According to Noreiga, when the district ran into legal barriers over potential property, they allocated money away from the Eastside and gave it to other schools.
A list of schools with planned projects under Measure O can be found on the RUSD website. An Eastside elementary school is one of them, but community leaders claim the district’s prioritization of need is off-kilter.
“Like the funding for John W. North High School– it needs $151 million to renovate and it’s supposed to be at the top of the list that needs repairs,” Noriega said. “Yet the school district ignored the assessment and instead of keeping North at the top, they put it down lower and propped up two other high schools for priority funding.”
According to RUSD Board President Tom Hunt, the language that suggests funds get moved around based on the order of a list is incorrect.
The culprits preventing projects from moving forward are ultimately time and legal red tape. One such process is the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). CEQA is a complex body of law that requires public entities to consider environmental effects of their projects before approving them. RUSD must comply with CEQA before approving a project by either determining the project is exempt from the CEQA process or by preparing an environmental analysis.
“Each school site that is being funded has its own separate pot and none have anything to do with the other,” Hunt said. “CEQA is a very careful thing to go through and we have to be very very careful during the CEQA process as far as our outreach into the communities.”
When considering property for an Eastside elementary school, it took time before RUSD could configure properties that would be right for what they knew the community needs.
“In the Eastside, which is the most densely populated area, there really isn’t a lot of land that will comply with what we have to produce for legal reasons, other than pockets here and there,” Hunt said. “We also have to abide by the California education code, not just CEQA.”
Noriega and Hunt alike both voiced concerns for the future of the district and that children need neighborhood schools.
“The kids have been bussed out of the Eastside for 57 years,” Noriega said. “When you send 500 kids to another school, it’s sustaining that school’s enrollment and not their own neighborhood.”
Hunt too mentioned all the moving pieces he considers when he thinks of who has to bus their child to school and who does not. He said his desire is that all RUSD families would be able to send their children to a quality school close to their home.