California's $12.3 Billion in Proposed School Bonds: Borrowing vs. Reform

“As the result of California Courts refusing to uphold the language of the High Speed Rail bonds, the opponents of any bond proposal, at either the state or local level, need only point to High-Speed Rail to remind voters that promises in a voter approved bond proposal are meaningless and unenforceable.”
–  Jon Coupal, October 26, 2014, HJTA California Commentary

If that isn’t plain enough – here’s a restatement: California’s politicians can ask voters to approve bonds, announcing the funds will be used for a specific purpose, then they can turn around and do anything they want with the money. And while there’s been a lot of coverage and debate over big statewide bond votes, the real money is in the countless local bond issues that collectively now encumber California’s taxpayers with well over $250 billion in debt.

Over the past few weeks we’ve tried to point out that local tax increases – 166 of them on the November 4th ballot at last count, tend to be calibrated to raise an amount of new tax revenue that, in too many cases, are suspiciously equal to the amount that pension contributions are going to be raised over the next few years. For three detailed examples of how local tax increases will roughly equal the impending increases to required pension contributions, read about Stanton, Palo Alto, and Watsonville‘s local tax proposals. It is impossible to analyze them all.

As taxes increase, money remains fungible. More money, more options. They can say it’s for anything they want. And apparently, bonds are no better.

At last count, there are 118 local bond measures on the November ballot. And not including three school districts in Fresno County for which the researchers at CalTax are “awaiting more information,” these bonds, collectively, propose $12.4 billion in new debt for California taxpayers. All but six of these bond proposals (representing $112 million) are for schools. Refer to the list from CalTax to read a summary of what each of these bonds are for – “school improvements,” “replace leaky roofs,” “repair restrooms,” “repair gas/sewer lines,” “upgrade wiring,” “renovate classrooms,” “make repairs.”

To be fair, there are plenty of examples of new capital investment, “construct a new high school,” for example, but they represent a small fraction of the stated intents. On November 4th, Californians are being asked to borrow another $12.3 billion to shore up their public school system. They are being asked to pile another $12.3 billion onto over $250 billion of existing local government debt, along with additional hundreds of billions in unfunded retirement obligations for state and local government workers. They are being asked to borrow another $12.3 billion in order to do deferred maintenance. We are borrowing money to fix leaky roofs and repair restrooms and sewers. This is a scandal, because for the past 2-3 decades, California’s educational system has been ran for the benefit of unionized educators and unionized construction contractors who work in league with financial firms whose sales tactics and terms of lending would make sharks on Wall Street blush. These special interests have wasted taxpayers money and wasted the educations of millions of children. Their solution? Ask for more money.

Nobody should suggest that California’s public schools don’t require investment and upgrades. But before borrowing more money on the shoulders of taxpayers, why aren’t alternatives considered? Why aren’t educators clamoring for reforms that would cut back on the ratio of administrators to teachers? Why aren’t they admitting that project labor agreements raise the cost to taxpayers for all capital investments and upgrades, and doing something about it? If their primary motivation is the interests of students, why aren’t they supporting the Vergara ruling that, if enforced, will improve the quality of teachers in the classroom at no additional cost? Why aren’t they embracing charter schools, institutions whose survival is tied to their ability to produce superior educational outcomes for far less money? Why don’t they question more of these “upgrade” projects? Is it absolutely necessary to carpet every field in artificial turf, a solution that is not only expensive but causes far more injuries to student athletes? Is it necessary to spend tens of millions per school on solar power systems? Does every high school really need a new theater, or science lab? Or do they just need fewer administrators, and better teachers?

And to acknowledge the biggest, sickest elephant in the room – that massive, teetering colossus called CalSTRS, should teachers, who only spend 180 days per year actually teaching, really be entitled to pensions that equal 75% of their final salary after only 30 years, in exchange for salary withholding that barely exceeds what private employees pay into Social Security? Thanks to unreformed pensions, how many billions in school maintenance money ended up getting invested by CalSTRS in Mumbai, Shanghai, Jakarta, or other business-friendly regions?

How much money would be saved if all these tough reforms were enacted? More importantly, how much would we improve the ability of our public schools to educate the next generation of Californians? Would we still have to borrow another $12.3 billion?

Here’s an excerpt from an online post promoting one of California’s local school bond measures: “It will help student academic performance, along with ensuring our property values. If you believe that strong schools and strong communities go hand in hand, please vote…”

Unfortunately, such promises are meaningless and unenforceable. The debt is forever.

*   *   *

Ed Ring is the executive director of the California Policy Center.

3 replies
  1. David Kline says:

    There is a published Court of Appeal decision that gives taxpayers some hope when it comes to school bonds.

    In 2013, the Fourth District Court of Appeal ruled (in Taxpayers for Accountable School Bond Spending v. San Diego Unified School District) that the school district is barred from using proceeds of a 2008 school bond (Proposition S) for field lighting at high school stadiums, because Proposition S did not specifically list field lighting as a project to be funded by the bond. The measure approved by voters contained a specific list of projects, including replacement of stadium bleachers and “Upgrade fields, track, and courts for accessibility compliance” at Hoover High School, but made no mention of lighting.

    The court noted that the state constitution requires that a school bond that has a 55 percent vote threshold must, among other things, contain “a list of the specific school facilities projects to be funded.”

    School districts can seek bonds without such a list, but the bond measures face a higher vote threshold – at least a two-thirds vote.

  2. Lorna says:

    San Diego, CA passed two bond measures to improve schools Props S and Z. Here is our thanks: Crawford High School (Crawford) is over fifty years old, the school is in desperate need of repair and modernization. Instead of focusing on badly needed repairs as the first order of business, the modernization plan is to build a 2,250 seat “Sports Complex” including (6) ninety foot lights and a PA system. This is nearly 1,000 more seats than the school has students. There is no immediate plan to renovate or improve classrooms or ensure the ADA compliance of school buildings. There is a vague statement that sometime around 2019, new three story classrooms and other upgrades will be done, but only if there is money available to do so. The majority of Prop S funds intended to renovate the derelict school are being spent on a football stadium. The citizens of this community have attended meeting after meeting to express our dismay with this plan, and to argue that for the sake of the students, the school must be renovated in a practical and realistic way to improve accessibility and learning conditions.

    They have built these stadiums at most SD High Schools. Here are the results on the neighborhoods https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=tVutvv5VKas

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.