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The System Is Skewed to Pass Bond Measures (Section 7 of 9)

See the complete California Policy Center report For the Kids: California Voters Must Become Wary of Borrowing Billions More from Wealthy Investors for Educational Construction (complete, printable PDF Version, 4 MB, 361 pages)

Links to all sections of this study readable online:
Executive Summary: “For the Kids” – Comprehensive Review of California School Bonds (1 of 9)
More Borrowing for California Educational Construction in 2016 (2 of 9)
Quantifying and Explaining California’s Educational Construction Debt (3 of 9)
How California School and College Districts Acquire and Manage Debt (4 of 9)
Capital Appreciation Bonds: Disturbing Repayment Terms (5 of 9)
Tricks of the Trade: Questionable Behavior with Bonds (6 of 9)
You are here: The System Is Skewed to Pass Bond Measures (7 of 9)
More Trouble with Bond Finance for Educational Construction (8 of 9)
Improving Oversight, Accountability, and Fiscal Responsibility (9 of 9)
Guide to all Tables and Appendices – Comprehensive Reference for Researchers


The System Is Skewed to Pass Bond Measures

Considering the advantages that supporters have in preparing and campaigning for a bond measure, perhaps it’s noteworthy that voters reject about 20% of local bond measures for educational construction. At every stage of the process, interests that will benefit from bond sales can take advantage of a system that favors passage of a bond measure. Some issues of concern include use of public funds to develop campaigns to pass bond measures, significant political contributions to campaigns from interests likely to benefit from construction, involvement of college foundations as intermediaries for campaign contributions, and conflicts of interest and alleged pay-to-play contracts.

It’s Not “Tough” Anymore to Pass Local Bond Measures for School and College Districts

Voters in 2000 who read the ballot argument in favor of Proposition 39 would have seen supporters claim that it would “require bonds to be passed by a tough 55% super-majority vote.” Perhaps a 55% threshold could be described as “tough” compared to approval by a simple majority of 50% plus one, but it certainly hasn’t meant passage is difficult to achieve in practice. Four out of five bond measures proposed under the criteria of Proposition 39 win voter approval. (See Section 3 for more information.)

Supporters might argue that the 80% voter approval rate for construction bond measures qualified under Proposition 39 simply reflects the view of a substantial percentage of Californians that school and community college districts need new and modernized facilities. But these views don’t develop in a vacuum.

An industry of campaign consultants helps educational districts to convince voters to approve bond measures. They have developed a formula that generally results in victory. Here are some of the most obvious tactics used to achieve that success rate of 80 percent.

Using Public Funds to Hire a Consultant for Voter Research That Is Subsequently Useful in the Election Campaign to Pass the Bond Measure

Many Californians would be astonished to learn that school and community college districts can use funds from their operating budget to develop a strategy to pass a bond measure. Yet this practice is common — and legal.

California law prohibits community college districts and K-12 school districts from using public funds or resources to campaign in support or opposition to bond measures. Education Code Section 7054 states “No school district or community college district funds, services, supplies, or equipment shall be used for the purpose of urging the support or defeat of any ballot measure…”

However, these same public resources CAN be used to provide information to the public about the possible effects of any bond issue or other ballot measure, as long as that information constitutes a fair and impartial presentation of relevant facts to aid the electorate in reaching an informed judgment regarding the bond issue or ballot measure.

A 2005 opinion from California Attorney General Bill Lockyer confirmed that it is legal for a college district (and a school district) to use district funds to hire a consultant to conduct surveys and establish focus groups to assess the following important conditions for a campaign:

  1. The potential support and opposition to a bond measure, by gathering information and evaluating the potential for the adoption of a bond measure by the electorate.
  2. The public’s awareness of the district’s financial needs.
  3. The overall feasibility of developing a bond measure that could win voter approval.

According to the Attorney General, this is not “partisan campaigning.”

Of course, this professional research and analysis — paid for by taxpayers — puts a school or college district at a significant advantage for a bond measure campaign. Consultants determine which words and arguments are most effective in motivating various demographic groups in the district to vote for a bond measure. Consultants also determine which arguments would be most effective for opponents of a bond measure and how the school district can neutralize those arguments.

Further research is needed to reveal how often a “feasibility study” concludes that a bond measure is not “feasible.” Considering that the firm evaluating the feasibility of a bond measure may often be seeking future contracts with the district or the campaign committee, there may be a conscious or subconscious inclination to manipulate the survey questions or the results to obtain a deceptively positive recommendation. In his book Win Win: An Insider’s Guide to School Bonds, Dale Scott of Dale Scott & Company cites a case in which he suspects a consulting firm had self-interested motivations when it recommended that a school board place a bond measure on a June primary ballot rather than a November presidential ballot with an apparent better chance of passage. Voters rejected the bond measure.

Considering that voters approve about 80% of educational bond measures at the 55% voter approval threshold, cynics would argue the real purpose of surveys isn’t to determine “feasibility” but to use public funds to develop election campaign strategy. Based on promotional material of firms that specialize in feasibility studies for bond measures, the argument is valid.

Here’s an excerpt from a consulting firm’s website about how information from taxpayer-funded surveys can be used to improve the chance of election victory:

…an initial baseline survey can determine the overall feasibility and voter acceptance of a bond or parcel tax measure at different funding levels. It can test how voters respond to different versions of the ballot title and summary, and – through analysis of respondent demographics and past voting patterns – it can help determine which election calendar promises the greatest likelihood of success. The same survey can also determine the effectiveness of the rationales and arguments that might be offered for and against a bond or parcel tax measure, thus helping shape the communications themes that will explain how the measure addresses voters’ concerns… [Name of firm] works with its clients to perfect ballot language and voter pamphlet arguments, using our empirical data to guide our advice.

A second example:

Public opinion research is critical to packaging a revenue measure for success. School districts can maximize the dollars that they raise through general obligation bonds, Proposition 39 bonds, and parcel taxes by collecting pertinent voter opinion data and using this information to solicit support. [Name of firm] can help maximize your measure’s potential by providing accurate and reliable results…We provide both qualitative and quantitative research services in the following areas:

•  Assessing baseline support for revenue measures

•  Identifying the highest achievable tax threshold and total bond amounts

• Determining the arguments and features of the measure that will increase support

•  Evaluating the need and content for a public information campaign

•  Determining the best election in which to place the measure on the ballot

•  Packaging a measure for success

A third example:

[Name of firm] understands that the research can be the first step not only in determining the feasibility of a potential revenue measure, but also in bringing together the various stakeholders and constituencies that will need to be involved and supportive in order for any ballot measure to be successful. We know that the issues facing the District do not exist in a vacuum and must be put into the context of the current political and cultural environment in the District. The voter opinion survey presents the District with an opportunity to hear from the administration, teachers, staff, Board, and other community stakeholders about their priorities. Involving key stakeholders in the research design leads to confidence in the research findings and helps ensure that the parties who are integral to a ballot measure’s success are on board and on the same page.

Even items scheduled on board meeting agendas to hire the consultant and then to review the survey results create a positive news opportunity for bond measure proponents. At this early stage in the process, potential opponents usually have not emerged to present a different perspective. And a finding of measurable strong support portrays a bond measure as something already broadly supported by community, thus convincing undecided individuals and organizations that the bond measure is worthy of support and discouraging individuals and organizations that might be inclined to oppose it.

Public Resources Used to Win a Bond Measure

A consulting firm for school bond measures has developed a “Finance Measure Checklist for Success” (see Tables 14 and 15) that outlines five steps for victory. A school district can fund and coordinate four of the five steps with public resources. Only the fifth and final step requires the district to “step away” from explicit political campaigning and pass primary responsibility to a separate political entity, such as a Political Action Committee.

By the time the “partisan campaign” begins, the community college district or K-12 school district has spent a year or longer obtaining polling data, alerting voters directly and through the news media to the need for school construction, and refining campaign themes and messages. A taxpayer-funded effort to pass it has been well underway, without a cent of money raised or spent by a campaign committee. Already the proponents have an advantage over any opposition to the bond measure.

Comparing the Election Campaigns of Supporters and Opponents

There is an existing network of professional political consultants who are experienced in establishing a campaign committee, collecting corporate campaign contributions, and communicating with voters using an effective message developed from the results of the district’s feasibility study. Political campaigning is a business, and fierce competition forces consulting firms to build and maintain a reputation for winning. Meanwhile, professional campaign vendors are ready to design, print, and mail campaign material. Endorsements can be quickly obtained from political, business, and community leaders. Participants in phone banks and precinct walkers can be recruited and even paid if a financial incentive is necessary.

In addition, potential district contractors are able to promote school bond measures through California’s Coalition for Adequate School Housing (C.A.S.H.), whose membership “contains over 1,500 school districts, county offices and private sector businesses, including architects, attorneys, consultants, construction managers, financial institutions, modular building manufacturers, contractors, developers, and others that are in the school facilities industry…C.A.S.H. has sponsored or supported over $52 billion in statewide school bonds to build and/or modernize thousands of schools.”

Contrast this to the typical opposition to a bond measure. Often there aren’t any formal opponents. Sometimes the opposition consists of a few individuals known in the community as gadflies or anti-tax or libertarian activists. Opposition can gain more credibility if there is an existing local community or taxpayer organization that provides a formal forum for fiscal critics to meet and strategize. That organization is almost always more effective if it employs full-time professional staff responsible to a board of directors.

Proposition Z for Zombie Tax San Diego United School District 2012In rare cases there is a well-funded opposition campaign backed by local business leaders and interest groups and run by professional political consultants. One example of this was opposition to Measure Z for the San Diego Unified School District in the November 2012 election.

Potential opponents must regularly monitor local news sources and the meeting agendas of local educational districts to know when an elected governing board is considering a bond measure and passes a resolution putting a bond measure on the ballot. Sometimes the board does this immediately before the legal deadline, thus providing very little time for opponents to respond before the election.

Concerned parties must meet to consider the bond measure and determine an appropriate position. Someone needs to know or obtain the various laws concerning the submission of an opposing argument in the ballot pamphlet, and someone needs to write the opposing argument and go through the process of getting group approval of the text. It needs to be submitted on time and in compliance with often-technical legal requirements. A few people in the organization must volunteer to write commentaries or letters to the editor of the local newspaper, and then follow through with the promise. Some people may chip in some money from their small businesses or personal savings to order some lawn signs, which have to be designed, approved, printed, and distributed.

Nonetheless, bond measures do fail almost 20% of the time despite the organizational and financial advantages of supporters. A 2003 report from the Public Policy Institute of California noted that big urban school districts in the San Francisco Bay Area and the Los Angeles area with high numbers of registered Democrat voters tended to propose more bond measures and win voter approval of those bond measures more often that smaller districts in rural areas, such as the Central Valley. This pattern appears to continue through 2014.

In some large urban school districts in California, especially in the San Francisco Bay Area, bond measures always win easily and opposition seems futile. As long as these districts don’t propose bonds too frequently, they rarely have to worry about opposition.

Top Donors Are Current or Potential Contractors for Finance and Construction

Generally, the public has poor access to records concerning the contributions to and expenditures of campaigns to pass bond measures. In some counties the campaign forms must be obtained in person and are provided as photocopies. Other counties have electronic databases that simply link to scanned documents. Trying to compile or analyze campaign finance patterns would be a tedious undertaking.

Nevertheless, compilations of contributors to four campaigns to pass five bond measures in November 2012 suggest that what is commonly assumed is accurate: these campaigns are mostly funded by companies likely to earn money from the proceeds of those bond sales.

Table 16: Categories of Major Donors to Campaigns to Pass Bond Measures
Construction management firms
Law firms involved with bond sales
Architectural firms
Engineering firms
Construction contractors
Construction trade unions
Union-affiliated labor-management committees
Bond underwriters
Community college foundations (for community college bond measures)
Charter school advocacy groups

Community College Foundations Entangled in Controversy

A 2005 opinion of the California Attorney General (also referenced above in relation to bond underwriters and campaigns) determined that a community college district’s auxiliary organizations (such as foundations and student body associations) are legally able to contribute their own privately raised funds to a political action committee established specifically to advocate voter approval of a bond measure. It is routine to see community college foundations contributing to bond campaigns. Like any 501(c)3 non-profit, college foundations are permitted to spend up to 20% of expenditures for influencing legislation, and that includes bond measures.

Controversy arose about this practice in 2004 after the Sierra College Foundation contributed about $100,000 to three bond measure campaigns for the Sierra Community College District. Neither the Political Action Committees nor the Sierra College Foundation reported the contributions to the California Fair Political Practices Commission.

At least two board members alleged that the college president, who estimated making 40 presentations to groups of prospective donors, had tried to hide the identities of contributors to the bond measure campaigns (including architects and engineering firms) using the Foundation as an intermediary. These board members also believed that people interested in contributing to the bond campaign were advised to make their contributions to the Foundation instead of the bond measure campaign committee in order to benefit from a tax deduction. The Placer County Civil Grand Jury ended up concluding there wasn’t any reliable evidence to support these accusations against the college president, but the incident exposed some of the potential problems with college foundations acting as a intermediary to fund campaigns to pass bond measures.

Alleged “Pay-to-Play” by Some Bond Underwriters Gets Attention

In the spring of 2012, there was a flurry of news media attention about some bond underwriters making contributions to campaigns for bond measures and subsequently making money through issuance fees as the underwriter for the bond sales. The news article that broke the story reported the following:

Leading financial firms over the past five years donated $1.8 million to successful school bond measures in California, and in almost every instance, school district officials hired those same underwriters to sell the bonds for a profit, a California Watch review has found. The practice is especially pronounced in California, where underwriters gave 155 political contributions since 2007 to successful bond campaigns for school construction and repairs.

Under an amendment to Rule G-37, adopted in 2010, the Municipal Securities Rulemaking Board (MSRB) requires each broker, dealer or municipal securities dealer to send a form quarterly to the MSRB reporting their contributions to bond ballot campaigns if those contributions exceeded $250. These contributions do not prohibit brokers from doing business with the entity proposing the bond measure, but the reporting requirements allow the public to identify these contributions as part of any effort to cross-reference them with contracts. Other rules prohibit brokers from doing business with entities if they have made campaign contributions to entity officials who make decisions related to selecting brokers for bond issues.

In 2009, the MSRB considered toughening Rule G-37 to prohibit brokers from doing business with government entities if those brokers contributed to campaigns to pass bond measures proposed by those government entities. California was cited as a particularly notorious location for the appearance of “pay-to-play” relationships. In the end, the MSRB declined to change the rule, citing constitutional First Amendment concerns.

The Bond Buyer reviewed broker contributions to 2010 campaigns to pass bond measures in California and identified “a nearly perfect correlation between broker-dealer contributions to California school bond efforts in 2010 and their underwriting subsequent bond sales.” A spokesperson for California State Treasurer Bill Lockyer responded to the review: “…it is probably time to end the days when underwriters, bond counsels or financial advisors fund, manage or provide other key support for local bond campaigns, then get paid to do work on the bond sales.” In 2013, the Los Angeles County Treasurer and Tax Collector Mark Saladino adopted “a complete ban on cash and in-kind contributions from all firms in our underwriter pool starting no later than when we renew our pool for another year in January 2014.”

Sources

“Opinion No. 04-211,” Legal Opinions of the Attorney General, April 5, 2011, accessed June 28, 2015, oag.ca.gov/system/files/opinions/pdfs/04-211.pdf

Win Win: An Insider’s Guide to School Bonds, Dale Scott & Company, accessed June 28, 2015, www.dalescott.com/dscpublishing

“School District Services,” Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin, Metz & Associates (FM3), accessed June 28, 2015, www.fm3research.com/services/School_District_Services

“Public Opinion Research for Today’s School Districts,” Godbe Research, accessed June 28, 2015, www.godberesearch.com/level2/pdf/School_BR_2006.pdf

“Approve TBWB Strategies/EMC Research Consulting Proposal to Conduct a Parcel Tax Feasibility Study (Phase 1 Only),” Soquel Union Elementary School District November 7, 2012, accessed June 28, 2015, www.soqueldo.santacruz.k12.ca.us/board_agendas/board_packet110712.pdf

“Finance Measure Checklist for Success,” Lew Edwards Group, accessed June 28, 2015, www.lewedwardsgroup.com/services/finance-checklist.html

California’s Coalition for Adequate School Housing (C.A.S.H.) www.cashnet.org

“Tax Group to Oppose San Diego School Bonds,” San Diego Union-Tribune, September 5, 2012, accessed June 28, 2015, www.utsandiego.com/news/2012/sep/05/tax-group-to-oppose-prop-z/

“Fiscal Effects of Voter Approval Requirements on Local Governments,” Public Policy Institute of California, January 27, 2003, accessed June 28, 2015, www.ppic.org/content/pubs/report/R_103KRR.pdf

Tables of contributors to campaigns to pass bond measures in the November 2012 election for Sacramento City Unified School District (Measures Q and R), Solano Community College District (Measure Q), West Contra Costa Unified School District (Measure E), and San Diego Unified School District (Measure Z) are provided on various posts of www.LaborIssuesSolutions.com

“Opinion No. 04-211,” Legal Opinions of the Attorney General, April 5, 2005, accessed June 28, 2015, oag.ca.gov/system/files/opinions/pdfs/04-211.pdf

“Final Report: Refutation of Trustee’s Charges Against Former Sierra College President,” Placer County Civil Grand Jury, March 21, 2006, accessed June 28, 2015, www.placer.courts.ca.gov/grandjury/2005-2006/2005-2006-gjfinalreport.pdf

With Campaign Donations, Bond Underwriters Also Secure Contracts,” California Watch, May 12, 2015, accessed June 28, 2015, californiawatch.org/money-and-politics/campaign-donations-bond-underwriters-also-secure-contracts-16032

“Rule G-37: Political Contributions and Prohibitions on Municipal Securities Business,” Municipal Securities Rulemaking Board, accessed June 28, 2015, www.msrb.org/Rules-and-Interpretations/MSRB-Rules/General/Rule-G-37.aspx

“Brokers’ Gifts That Keep Giving,” The Bond Buyer, January 13, 2012, accessed June 28, 2015, www.bondbuyer.com/issues/121_10/california-broker-dealer-contributions-school-bond-issue-1035266-1.html

“Proposed Underwriter Pool Changes” Los Angeles County Treasurer and Tax Collector, August 8, 2013, accessed June 28, 2015, http://ttc.lacounty.gov/proptax/docs/Underwriter%20Pool%20Memo.pdf

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More Trouble with Bond Finance for Educational Construction (Section 8 of 9)

See the complete California Policy Center report For the Kids: California Voters Must Become Wary of Borrowing Billions More from Wealthy Investors for Educational Construction (complete, printable PDF Version, 4 MB, 361 pages)

Links to all sections of this study readable online:
Executive Summary: “For the Kids” – Comprehensive Review of California School Bonds (1 of 9)
More Borrowing for California Educational Construction in 2016 (2 of 9)
Quantifying and Explaining California’s Educational Construction Debt (3 of 9)
How California School and College Districts Acquire and Manage Debt (4 of 9)
Capital Appreciation Bonds: Disturbing Repayment Terms (5 of 9)
Tricks of the Trade: Questionable Behavior with Bonds (6 of 9)
The System Is Skewed to Pass Bond Measures (7 of 9)
You are here: More Trouble with Bond Finance for Educational Construction (8 of 9)
Improving Oversight, Accountability, and Fiscal Responsibility (9 of 9)
Guide to all Tables and Appendices – Comprehensive Reference for Researchers


More Troubling Issues with Bond Finance for Educational Construction

While compiling the comprehensive information provided in this study, California Policy Center researchers identified numerous other troubling aspects of bond finance. School and college districts are evading compliance with the law and making irresponsible decisions. Ordinary voters lack enough data to make an informed vote. Community activists who seek deeper understanding find themselves stymied.

Bad Government Behavior

1. Some School and College Districts Don’t Comply with Proposition 39

Two examples of investigative reports on educational district compliance with Proposition 39 are the San Diego County Taxpayers Association 2015 School Bond Transparency Scorecard and a 2010 San Mateo County Civil Grand Jury report entitled “School Bond Citizens’ Oversight Committees, Prop 39.” These reports show some districts are close to full compliance while others don’t seem to be complying at all. It appears that two types of districts are broadly failing to comply: (1) small school districts, which may have limited capability to comply, and (2) large school districts routinely accused of fiscal irresponsibility and mismanagement.

2. Spend It Or Lose It? Districts Can Sell Bonds Decades After Voter Approval

Some school and college districts ask voters to approve new authority to borrow additional money for facilities construction even though much of the authority from previous bond measures to borrow money has not been used. This is a strategy to circumvent tax and debt limits imposed by state law on individual bond measures, and it leaves millions (and sometimes billions) of dollars in borrowing authority dangling for future school boards to exercise long after voters have forgotten the election.

3. Districts Sell Bonds at a Premium and Use the Extra Money to Pay Fees Related to Selling the Bonds

The California Attorney General’s office is preparing a legal opinion (14-202) on whether school and college districts can use a premium to pay bond issuance fees. The question asked is “May the ‘premium’ generated from a school district bond sale be used to pay for expenses of issuance and other transaction costs?” (See Table 8 for a list of such fees.)

In 2011, the California Attorney General warned the Poway Unified School District that “artificially inflating the interest rate to generate premium” to pay for costs of issuance would be illegal.

The California State Treasurer or a state agency needs to compile a list of bond issues for which buyers paid a premium that the district then used to pay bond issuance fees. How rampant is the practice and how much has it cost California taxpayers?

4. Firms Get Contracts to Prepare a Bond Measure Before the Election and Then Get Contracts to Implement the Bond Measure After the Election

The California Attorney General’s office is preparing a legal opinion (13-304) on whether a party that gets a contract with a school or college district for surveying voters and preparing a bond measure can then get a contract as the bond underwriter (bond broker) for issuances approved by that same bond measure. The question asked is “In connection with a school or community college bond measure, does a district violate state law by contracting with a bond underwriter for both pre-election campaign services and post-election underwriting services?”

5. Is There Exaggeration, Deception, or Outright Fraud When Districts Assess Needs for Another Bond Measure?

Some school and college districts seek to borrow more money for school construction even when their enrollment has been substantially declining for years and is projected to continue declining. Overcrowding would not seem to be a problem in such districts. Is the need legitimate?

A state agency should conduct random audits for several school or college districts to determine the credibility of their facilities plan based on their evaluations of safety, class size reduction and information technology needs. Numerous bond measures include the words “safety” and “security” in the ballot question and statement, insinuating to voters that students and teachers may be physically harmed unless the district can borrow money via bond sales for construction projects. Are there truly legitimate threats to safety and security in schools throughout the state?

6. A Handful of Voters in Future Development Areas Have Given School Districts Massive Authority to Sell Bonds and Put the Bills on Future Residents

When researchers for the California Policy Center developed preliminary charts now in the appendix to this report and began circulating them publicly early in 2015, two bond measures received unexpected attention on the list of 1,147 considered since enactment of Proposition 39.

In both of these cases, a school district created the boundaries of a School Facilities Improvement District — carved out of the entire district — in a sparsely-populated where future development will occur and future schools will be built.

Apparently the Folsom-Cordova Unified School District compared this option to the establishment of a Community Facilities District funded by Mello-Roos fees and chose this financing option. Its Improvement District had a population in 2006 of about 330 persons.

Table 17: Bond Measures Approved by a Handful of Voters for Huge Amounts
Educational DistrictFolsom Cordova Unified School District SFID No. 3Roseville Joint Union High School District SFID No. 1
Amount Authorized to Borrow$750,000,000$115,000,000
Date of Election2007-03-272007-04-24
CountiesSacramentoPlacer
MeasureMA
Needed to Pass66.7%66.7%
Yes6011
No141
Total7412
Passage81.1%91.7%
Amount Per Vote$12,500,000$10,454,545

Shortcomings That Hinder Voters

The California legislature recognizes that some ballot statements for bond measures do not contain enough relevant information for voters. In 2014, Governor Brown signed into law Assembly Bill 2551, introduced by Assemblyman Scott Wilk, which requires each bond issue proposed by a local government to include estimates from official sources of tax rates for certain years, the maximum annual tax rate, and total debt service (the principal and interest that would be required to be repaid if all the bonds are issued and sold). The bill never received a vote in opposition. In 2015, Assemblyman Jay Obernolte introduced Assembly Bill 809, which requires the ballot statement for local tax measures to include information on the amount of money to be raised annually and the rate and duration of the tax to be levied. As of July 13, 2015, the bill was moving through Senate committees after passing the Assembly 57-8 (with 15 not voting).

1. Ballot Questions and Statements Aren’t Useful to the Ordinary Voter

A 2009 Little Hoover Commission report on bond measures noticed the lack of “fundamental criteria for ballot measures” and recommended a “simple, easy-to-understand report card in the voter guide for all bond measures placed on the ballot.” The problem continues unabated today.

Bond measures tend to be presented to voters in a vacuum, with minimal context about the past history of the district’s bond measures and construction programs. Voters can misinterpret proposed bond measures as a desperate response to a long-standing unaddressed crisis of unsafe, decrepit, and overcrowded classrooms, laboratories, and athletic facilities.

Voters need a chance to consider whether they should approve millions or even billions in new bond authority, even if millions or even billions of money has already been borrowed and millions or billions in existing authority still remains to be spent. This would reveal any history of foolish bond issues or debt acquisition.

2. Information Provided to Voters Needs More Pictures, Charts, and Tables

As mentioned in Section 5 of this report, a possible reason why the public finally discovered the extreme Capital Appreciation Bond financing arrangements of the Poway Unified School District was the simple and colorful graphics in the Voice of San Diego articles about it. More than ever, American society depends on imagery, charts, and tables for information instead of prose.

3. Voters Need to See the Importance of Assessed Property Valuation and District Enrollment Projections

Projections of the rate of change for assessed property valuation in the district should be among the most important elements in decisions concerning bond issues. Voters need to consider a history of wild swings in assessed property valuation in the district and decide whether projections are realistic or exaggerated.

A report on Capital Appreciation Bonds from the 2013-2014 Orange County Grand Jury recognized “there has been virtually no publicity concerning the implications of debt service repayment for CABs, specifically the magnitude of potentially higher taxes. There is potential for some school districts, through the County, to increase property taxes well beyond what was presented when the bonds were issued in order to repay the CABs.” Results of the Grand Jury’s investigation were depicted in tables. At least three school districts in Orange County predicted assessed property valuation to grow at unrealistically high rates when they asked voters to approve bond measures. As a result, these districts will have to levy tax rates far beyond what was portrayed to voters in order to pay off the Capital Appreciation Bonds.

In addition, voters need to be aware if the school or college district asking to borrow money for construction is experiencing a long-term trend up or down in student enrollment. There are arguments for borrowing a lot of money for facilities construction during a time of dropping enrollment (Wiseburn Unified School District is an example of this deliberate strategy), but the message to voters needs to reflect actual circumstances.

4. Ballot Questions for Bond Measures Deceive and Manipulate Voters

Several ballot questions for proposed community college bond measures have specifically singled out veterans as beneficiaries. As noted in Section 2, polling shows that voters respond positively to the idea that a bond measure will help veterans. As a result, the possibility that veterans will be using facilities funded by bond proceeds gets prominent mention in ballot language.

On June 29, 2015, the Solano County Grand Jury issued a report highly critical of the ballot title and ballot statement for Measure Q, a November 2012 ballot measure that authorized the Solano Community College District to borrow $348 million for construction by selling bonds to investors. The Grand Jury asserted that voters were duped into thinking that proceeds from selling bonds would directly provide classroom instruction and job training for veterans and other students. It suggested that future bond measures conform narrowly to Proposition 39 language and focus on construction of educational facilities:

Finding 1

The language of Measure Q was misleading. While Proposition 39 generally authorizes funding of buildings and land purchases even the name of the measure, “The Solano Community College District Student/Veterans’ Affordable Education Job Training, Classroom Repair Measure,” suggests otherwise.

Recommendation 1

Language used in future school bond proposals be limited to that which is stated in the authorizing statute.

References to veterans is an example of how campaign consultants have developed ballot titles, questions, and summaries that manipulate the emotions of uninformed voters who are looking at a ballot and deciding how to vote. Another example is the claim that “all funds stay local” or “all funds benefit neighborhood schools.” This statement ignores how taxpayers will pay the financial services industry for issuance fees and may end up providing more funds for interest payments to wealthy bond investors than for principal spent on design and construction of neighborhood schools.

These clever campaign tactics would probably withstand legal challenges based on California Elections Code Section 9509, which establishes a standard for a legitimate challenge to a title, question, or statement of a school or college district ballot measure. A complaint must have “clear and convincing proof that the material in question is false, misleading, or inconsistent” with state law.

Grassroots Activism on Bond Measures Is Difficult

1. Municipal Finance Is Confusing, Even for People Motivated to Understand It

As stated in a 2013-14 Orange County Civil Grand Jury report on Capital Appreciation Bonds, “This topic required extensive research. Numerous newspaper articles were reviewed…An extensive Internet search was conducted to learn about the mechanics of bond financing and the related mathematics.” An ordinary person may have difficulty understanding concepts and jargon of municipal finance. It’s also a challenge for anyone without education or experience in accounting to identify and extract relevant information from financial audits and official statements.

In particular, Capital Appreciation Bonds are difficult to comprehend. To complicate matters, accreted interest for this type of debt instrument is portrayed differently depending on whether accounting is done on a “cash basis” or on an “accrual basis.” In the generally accepted accounting principles developed by the Financial Accounting Standards Board, each year’s interest payment is included as an expenditure for the year. This is accounting done on a cash basis. But in the generally accepted accounting standards for state and local governments developed by the Governmental Accounting Standards Board, accreted interest on Capital Appreciation Bonds is not recorded as a current expenditure until the bond matures. This is accounting done on an accrual basis.

Translating these concepts into something easy to understand is critical for the public to evaluate the wisdom of proposed bond issues.

2. Centralized Data Isn’t Available to Compare Debt Finance Conditions of School and College Districts

Where does the public go to find out how a school or college district funds facility construction and how it compares to other educational districts in the county or state?

In most cases, state law has not assigned any state or local agency with the responsibility to collect such information and provide it to the public in an accessible format. Even for information that state law requires to be collected and published — such as waivers from tax and debt limits — agencies are not providing the information in a way that alerts the public to existing or potential problems.

The California State Treasurer’s office has a “California Debt Issuance Database” administered by the California Debt and Investment Advisory Commission that allows the public to search for certain information about individual bond issues. School boards are required to submit certain information and reports regarding the sale or planned sale of bonds to the California Debt and Investment Advisory Commission. This database is better than nothing, but realistically it is not a useful tool for the ordinary citizen.

3. Basic Financial Information Is Inaccessible, Especially at Smaller School Districts

Many school districts are not posting their state-mandated financial reports on their websites for public access. Useful documents that the public should be able to readily access include PDF versions of annual financial audits and bond program audits.

For cases in which financial reports are not available on the web, adequate response to public records requests is often elusive. E-mailed requests to educational districts to get these reports do not always result in a prompt response. In particular, officials in small rural school districts do not seem responsive to an outside individual or organization requesting the district’s financial information. Researchers for this project struggled to obtain financial audits that would reveal details of Capital Appreciation Bond sales with ratios of debt service to principal that are much worse than the Poway Unified School District.

4. “Private Placements” Sometimes Eliminate Official Statements as a Source of Data

The Municipal Securities Rulemaking Board (MSRB) Electronic Municipal Market Access (EMMA) database was created and is maintained for the benefit of potential buyers of municipal bonds. Nevertheless, the Official Statements posted on the database are a valuable source of information for members of the general public who are interested in the debt finance and financial status of a state or local government agency.

Some school districts use “private placement” to sell bonds rather than using a more traditional method of selling bonds in the primary market to many investors. This is supposed to allow for lower interest rates on the bonds and save money for taxpayers. Because the individual private investors are considered qualified to do their own research into the credit and financial status of a district, “private placements” for bond sales by educational districts are exempt from the federal requirement to post Official Statements.

Researchers were unable to determine current debt service for several small school districts for which Official Statements were not posted on EMMA. At least two of them (Exeter Union High School District and Columbia Union School District) used private placements for their most recent bond sales. It is likely that every school district missing an Official Statement on EMMA for its most recent bond issue used private placement.

5. Public Information About General Obligation Bonds Varies in Formats and Completeness

In the annual Financial Audits for educational districts, information about general obligation bonds are presented in different ways. Some reports give details about each series of bonds that are issued, while some do not.

The same problem applies to the Official Statements on the EMMA database. Charts that indicate outstanding debt service are presented in different formats. Some charts provide details about principal and interest for each bond measure and some do not. A few Official Statements for educational districts that have substantial bond debt did not even add up the columns.

Official Statements are only produced when bonds are issued, so the most recent information available on the EMMA database can be more than a decade out of date. EMMA only became operational in the late 2000s, so information from the mid-1990s and earlier is often not available.

6. Refunding Bonds and Reauthorization Bonds Complicate Matters

When a school district refunds some of its bonds with a new bond issue, the record becomes fuzzy about how much principal is still owed for each bond measure and bond issue. Some districts have repeatedly issued refunding bonds, thus creating confusion about what bond measures are responsible for creating current debt. Taxpayers in some educational districts are still paying for bond measures approved in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but that fact is now hidden behind more recent refunded bond issues.

Since 2000, sixteen school districts have asked voters to reauthorize previously-approved bond authority, thus complicating the reporting of bond authority and bond debt. When voters reauthorize bond authority in a new election, they trigger new capacity for the district to levy taxes and accumulate debt. GO Reauthorization Bonds®, developed by the municipal debt financial advisory firm Dale Scott & Company, are marketed to districts that have reached their tax and debt limits, want to borrow more money for construction, but also want to avoid extensive sales of Capital Appreciation Bonds as the scheme to circumvent the tax and debt limits.

7. Critical Information Often Can Only Be Found in Old Board Meeting Packets Not Available for Easy Public Access

Perhaps the most important information to evaluate when considering bond issues are the projections of assessed valuation. If such projections are even recorded, they are often only found in presentations that financial advisors make to the board of trustees. Those presentations might or might not be included in old board meeting packets that might or might not be posted on a district website.

Sources

“2015 School Bond Transparency Scorecard,” San Diego County Taxpayers Association, www.sdcta.org/policy/policy-detail.html?id=1727

“School Bond Citizens’ Oversight Committees, Prop 39,” San Mateo County Grand Jury, https://www.sanmateocourt.org/documents/grand_jury/2009/prop39.pdf

“Re: Poway Unified School District v. All Persons Interested – Superior Court of California, County of San Diego, Case No. 37-2010-00106255-CU- MC-CTLAG,” California Attorney General letter to Poway Unified School District, Orange County Government, March 1, 2011, accessed June 28, 2015, http://cams.ocgov.com/Web_Publisher/Agenda11_05_2013_files/images/ATTORNEY%20GENERAL%20OPINION%20-%20POWAY%20BOND%20PREMIUM_9843497.PDF

“Resource Center,” California’s Coalition for Adequate School Housing, accessed June 28, 2015, https://www.cashnet.org/resource-center/resourcefiles/651.pdf

Text – AB 2551 “Local ballot measures: bond issues,” California Legislative Information, accessed June 28, 2015, http://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/billNavClient.xhtml?bill_id=201320140AB2551

Text – AB 809 “Local initiative measures: ballot printing specifications,” California Legislative Information, accessed June 28, 2015, http://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/billTextClient.xhtml?bill_id=201520160AB809

“Bond Spending: Expanding and Enhancing Oversight,” California Little Hoover Commission, June 24, 2009, accessed June 28, 2015, http://www.lhc.ca.gov/studies/197/report197.pdf

“School Bonds: The Untold Story of Assessed Values,” Orange County Grand Jury 2013-14, accessed June 28, 2014, http://www.ocgrandjury.org/pdfs/2013_2014_GJreport/BondsReport.pdf

“Former Wiseburn Schools Chief Don Brann Will Take Reins of Troublec Inglewood Unified,” Daily Breeze, June 28, 2013, accessed June 28, 2015, www.dailybreeze.com/general-news/20130628/former-wiseburn-schools-chief-don-brann-will-take-reins-of-troubled-inglewood-unified

“We Have Your Money, Now What?” Solano County Grand Jury 2014-15, accessed June 30, 2015, http://solano.courts.ca.gov/materials/Measure%20Q.pdf

California Elections Code Sections 9500-9509, accessed June 28, 2015, http://www.leginfo.ca.gov/cgi-bin/displaycode?section=elec&group=09001-10000&file=9500-9509

California State Treasurer’s Office – “California Debt Issuance Database” administered by the California Debt and Investment Advisory Commission www.treasurer.ca.gov/cdiac/debtdata/database_text.asp

“How to Kick-Start a Stalled G.O. Bond Program,” Association of Chief Business Officials, May 21, 2013, accessed June 28, 2015, www.acbo.org/files/Conference/2013 Spring/GOReauthorizationBonds.pdf

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