Posts

Unions Seek Control of Recent California School Bond Measures

Has California school and community college facility construction become a perpetual government stimulus program for politically-favored construction trade unions?

Prop 39 BannerFifteen years ago, it was obvious that many school and college districts in California needed new construction, modernization, or renovation of their facilities for the safety and comfort of students, teachers, administrators, and support staff. That’s why 53% of California voters approved Proposition 39 in November 2000. It reduced the threshold for voter approval of school bond measures from two-thirds to 55%, increasing the passage rate for educational bond measures from under 50% to more than 80%.

But the purpose of borrowing money for school construction seemed to evolve after the 2008 economic collapse and subsequent November 2008 election.

Debt started piling up from relentless and repeated bond sales to investors. The “need” for more construction seemed immeasurable and unquenchable. Scandals began to pop up as clever people began to figure out how to manipulate the loopholes and ambiguities in ten year-old state laws regarding finance and construction of educational facilities.

Meanwhile, construction trade unions became much more aggressive in trying to monopolize educational construction by lobbying elected school board members for Project Labor Agreements. And local school and college elected boards became much more willing to grant those union monopolies.

Local elected officials in California recognized that political circumstances had changed. To quote a San Diego Unified School District board member immediately before the 3-2 vote on May 26, 2009 for a Project Labor Agreement:

I think the bigger picture that people are realizing – and this is what scares some people – is that San Diego is changing, the United States is changing…this is a different city…we are looking at a different community.

What has resulted from this change? A lot of debt has been imposed on future generations of Californians.

The California Policy Center released a report in July 2015 entitled For the Kids: California Voters Must Become Wary of Borrowing Billions More from Wealthy Investors for Educational Construction. This report identified $146 billion in authorized borrowing from 2001 to 2014 for California educational facility construction and $200 billion in existing debt service from bonds sold to pay for California educational facility construction.

In response to this report, some taxpayer advocates have asserted that momentum for additional local educational bond measures is propelled by construction trade unions that see local education districts as ripe targets to accumulate a pool of guaranteed government work. Union leaders remain nervous about the state’s economic prospects. They don’t want a painful revival of membership unemployment rates of 25%-50% experienced from 2009 to 2012.

Is this argument valid?

Below is a list of all of the K-12 school and college bond measures approved by voters in the last four primary and general elections (in 2012 and 2014) that became targets of construction unions for a government-mandated Project Labor Agreement (PLA).

 

Bond Measures Approved by Voters in June 2012

 

Amount Authorized to Borrow Name of School or College District Voter Approval Percentage Project Labor Agreement Activity
West Valley-Mission Community College District

$350,000,000

59.8%

Board approves PLA for upcoming “pilot project” 8/20/13.

Milpitas Unified School District

$95,000,000

64.1%

Board approves PLA 12/11/12.

Bond Measures Approved by Voters in November 2012

 

San Diego Unified School District

$2,800,000,000

61.8%

PLA approved in 2009 extends to this bond measure.

Coast Community College District

$698,000,000

57.2%

Board votes 5/15/13 to end consideration of a PLA.

Oakland Unified School District

$475,000,000

84.4%

PLA approved in 2004 extends to this bond measure.

Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District

$385,000,000

68.1%

Board discusses PLA 11/20/14.

Board votes for contract to negotiate PLA 4/16/15.

West Contra Costa Unified School District

$360,000,000

64.4%

PLA approved in 2000 extends to all bond measures.

Cerritos Community College District

$350,000,000

70.3%

Board discusses PLA 4/16/14 and 6/4/14.

Solano Community College District

$348,000,000

63.5%

Board approves PLA 12/4/13.

Sacramento City Unified School District

$346,000,000

70.1%

Board votes 1/23/14 to extend PLA approved in 2005 to this bond measure.

Rancho Santiago Community College District

$198,000,000

72.6%

Board approves PLA 3/24/14.

Alum Rock Union Elementary School District

$125,000,000

79.5%

Board approves PLA 6/18/13.

East Side Union High School District

$120,000,000

71.6%

Revised PLA approved in 2009 extends to this bond measure.

Lynwood Unified School District

$93,000,000

57.4%

Board approves PLA 2/12/13.

Inglewood Unified School District

$90,000,000

86.1%

Board approves PLA 10/26/12.

Chula Vista Elementary School District SFID No. 1

$90,000,000

68.8%

Board approves negotiations for a PLA 4/15/15.

Oxnard School District

$90,000,000

66.4%

Board approves PLA 6/24/15.

Sacramento City Unified School District

$68,000,000

67.9%

Board votes 1/23/14 to extend PLA approved in 2005 to this bond measure.

Antioch Unified School District SFID No. 1

$56,500,000

62.8%

Board approves PLA 11/13/13.

Whittier City Unified School District

$55,000,000

72.4%

Board approves PLA 1/13/15.

Washington Unified School District

$22,000,000

72.8%

Board imposed a union-backed apprenticeship requirement for contractors and used it to disqualify non-union company from contract.

Bond Measures Approved by Voters in June 2014

 

Fremont Unified School District

$650,000,000

61.2%

Board approves negotiations for a PLA 8/12/15.

Contra Costa Community College District

$450,000,000

57.6%

Board approves PLA 10/10/12 for all projects of $2 million or more.

Culver City Unified School District

$106,000,000

76.3%

Community Budget Advisory Committee discusses PLA 5/27/15.

Bond Measures Approved by Voters in November 2014

 

Santa Clara Unified School District

$419,000,000

69.4%

Board discusses PLA 3/26/15.

PLA discussion scheduled for 8/13/15.

Sonoma County Community College District

$410,000,000

63.1%

Union officials have openly declared intent to lobby for a PLA.

College administrators have met with legal counsel regarding PLA.

San Mateo County Community College District

$388,000,000

66.2%

Board discusses PLA 7/8/15.

Norwalk-La Mirada Unified School District

$375,000,000

57.4%

Board discusses PLA 3/25/15.

San Luis Obispo County Community College District (Cuesta)

$275,000,000

62.6%

Board discusses PLA 2/4/15.

Board voted down PLA negotiations at 3/4/15 meeting.

Hayward Unified School District

$229,000,000

77.4%

Board votes for PLA 6/24/15.

Vacaville Unified School District

$194,000,000

62.0%

Board discusses PLA 3/9/15.

Board votes for PLA negotiations 6/25/15.

Alameda Unified School District

$179,500,000

62.8%

PLA discussion scheduled for 8/11/15.

Santa Rosa High School District

$175,000,000

64.0%

Union officials have openly declared intent to lobby for a PLA.

Salinas Union High School District

$128,000,000

60.3%

Board discusses PLA 3/24/15 and 5/12/15.

Board votes for PLA negotiations 5/26/15.

East Side Union High School District

$113,200,000

67.9%

PLA that applied to Measures G and E amended – apparently administratively – to cover Measure I.

Azusa Unified School District

$92,000,000

56.2%

Board discusses PLA 3/17/15.

Pittsburg Unified School District

$85,000,000

68.5%

Ballot arguments against the bond measure focused on PLAs imposed on previous bond measures; supporters’ rebuttal defended the PLAs.

Berryessa Union School District

$77,000,000

69.3%

Board votes for contract to negotiate PLA 3/10/15.

Santa Rosa Elementary School District

$54,000,000

69.1%

Union officials have openly declared intent to lobby for a PLA.

Washington Unified School District

$49,800,000

67.4%

Board imposed a union-backed apprenticeship requirement for contractors and used to disqualify non-union company from contract.

Bassett Unified School District

$30,000,000

62.4%

Board voted for PLA negotiations 1/20/15.

 

Kevin Dayton is the President & CEO of Labor Issues Solutions, LLC, and is the author of frequent postings about generally unreported California state and local policy issues at www.laborissuessolutions.com. Follow him on Twitter at @DaytonPubPolicy.

Tough Education Reform, not More Borrowing and Spending, is What Students Need

Last week the California Policy Center published a major new study that compiled, in exhaustive detail, both the amount that Californians have borrowed to finance public school construction and upgrades, as well as documented the abuses that have diminished the return on these substantial investments. Californians simply don’t realize how much borrowing is going on.

20150804-UW-bond-study1
“For the Kids,” Construction spending of $10 billion per year
for the last 14 years, despite enrollment in slight decline.

In 2001, voters passed Prop 39, which lowered the threshold for passage of a school bond from 66% to 55%. Prior to the passage of Prop. 39, only 42% of school bond proposals would pass – since then, 88% of them pass. The scale of this borrowing is amazing: Since 2001, Californians have approved 911 local school bond measures totaling $110.4 billion. In addition to local bonds, voters approved three state measures which added another $38.8 billion.

If the proceeds of these bonds were being spent efficiently, on worthy projects, under repayment terms that were fair and appropriate, there would not be an issue. But they’re not. Thanks to costly project labor agreements, environmentalist lawsuits, and a shocking lack of public oversight, school construction projects – along with all public infrastructure projects – cost far more than they should.

When considering what projects might be considered worthy, at whatever cost, one of the biggest reasons cited for local bond proposals is to fund “deferred maintenance.” For examples of this, view the summary of the 2014 Local Elections provided by CalTax (scroll down to “Bond, School”), and read the “description” column. “Upgrade and repair,” “modernize and upgrade,” “fix leaky roofs,” “make safety repairs,” “repair outdated heating and ventilation systems,” etc., etc. But why can’t maintenance work come out of existing budgets? For that matter, why wasn’t the work done using funds from earlier rounds of local school bond proceeds, instead of deferred?

This is not a rhetorical question. California’s K-12 student population has been stable for nearly 20 years. At 6.2 million students, it has actually declined slightly. Meanwhile, over the past 14 years, $146 billion has been borrowed and spent to maintain and improve schools for these 6.2 million students.

That’s $10.4 billion in construction spending every year, which based on 30 students per classroom, equates to approximately $50,000 per classroom, per year. Could you maintain one classroom and that classroom’s share of common facilities if you had $50,000 to spend, year after year?

How much is enough? Since 2001, construction bond proceeds have poured $700,000 into every K-12 classroom in California. Why do the roofs still leak?

When it comes to the terms of this debt, the story gets even worse. Because these bonds are complex financial instruments with ample room for “gotchas” that harm taxpayers. One of the worst examples of this are so-called “capital appreciation bonds,” which don’t require any payments for 10-20 years, then demand massive sums of principal and interest payments, long after the original promoters have retired, and often after the improvements and upgrades have worn out again.

It is relevant to discuss California’s $146 billion in school bond debt in the context of all California’s state and local debt. A few years ago the California Policy Center attempted tabulate it, including unfunded liabilities for pensions and retirement health care for state and local government employees. Those findings, using a 5.5% discount rate to estimate pension liabilities, and using our updated amount for school bonds, come in at $976 billion. That’s $76,250 of debt per household. Just interest payments on this debt, at 5% per year, come out to $3,812 per household per year.

The topic of school bond debt is vast and complicated, which is one reason why there is rarely meaningful public debate. The California Policy Center’s complete study on California’s school bond debt, including appendices, came in at 361 pages (view PDF), and took a team of researchers lead by policy analyst Kevin Dayton nearly a year to write. Here are key recommendations from that report:

  • Provide adequate and effective oversight and accountability for bond measures.
  • Enable voters to make a reasonably informed decision on bond measures.
  • Eliminate or mitigate conflicts of interest in contracting related to bond measures.
  • Reduce inappropriate, excessive or unnecessary spending of bond proceeds.
  • Improve understanding of bond measures through public education campaigns.

And here are a few additional recommendations:

  • Make construction bond proposals contingent on enforcing the Vergara ruling – making it possible to fire bad teachers, changing layoff and retention criteria from seniority to merit, and extending the time period required to acquire tenure.
  • Hold teachers accountable for the academic progress of their students, and prohibit construction bond proposals for any school districts in violation of the state’s teacher evaluation law, the Stull Act.
  • Reduce the number of administrators and support staff, increasing the proportion of public education employees who actually teach in classrooms. This will result in a proportionate reduction in support facilities, at the same time as it frees up budgeted funds to be used to perform deferred maintenance.

The reason Californians have borrowed $146 billion in recent years for school construction is because Californians believe there is nothing more important than educating children. That’s a noble sentiment. It’s why Prop. 39 passed back in 2001, carving out an exception to California’s two-thirds vote requirement for new taxes. And while the process of approving and spending all this money has been riddled with corruption and excess, it would be inaccurate to say all of this money was wasted. But all the money in the world will not improve California’s educational system, if great teachers and principals aren’t given the latitude and incentives to inspire their pupils, and if poor teachers and administrators are not terminated.

Californians should reform their system of K-12 education before borrowing another dime for construction. The return-of-investment is simply far better.

*   *   *

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