"For the Kids" – Comprehensive Review of California School Bonds, Executive Summary (Section 1 of 9)
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Few Californians realize how much debt they’ve imposed on future generations with their votes for bond measures meant to fund the construction of new and modernized school facilities.
From 2001 to 2014, California voters considered 1147 ballot measures proposed by K-12 school districts and community college districts to borrow money for construction via bond sales. Voters approved 911 of these bond measures, giving 642 school and college districts authority to borrow a total of $110.4 billion.
California voters also approved three statewide ballot measures during that time to authorize the state to borrow $35.8 billion. That money has supplemented local borrowing for construction projects at school and college districts, and the state has spent all but $195 million of it.
That’s a total of $146.1 billion authorized during the last 14 years for state and local educational districts to obtain and spend on construction projects. All of it has been borrowed or will be borrowed from wealthy investors, who buy state and local government bonds as a relatively safe investment that generates tax-exempt income through interest payments.
Current and future generations of Californians are already committed to paying these investors about $200 billion in principal and interest — a number that will grow as school and college districts continue to borrow by selling bonds already authorized by voters but not yet sold.
And more borrowing is coming.
In 2016 California voters may be asked to authorize the state to borrow as much as $9 billion for school construction. More than 100 school and college districts may ask voters to approve borrowing a total of several billion more dollars. Officials at the country’s second largest school district, the Los Angeles Unified School District, claim they need more than $40 billion for additional construction and plan to ask voters to approve borrowing several billion in 2016.
It is time to be wary. The California Policy Center believes that most Californians are unaware and uninformed about this relentless borrowing and the amount of debt already accumulated to pay for school construction. Most voters cannot explain how a bond measure works and do not get enough information to make an educated decision about the wisdom of a bond measure.
California voters who want to learn more before voting will have difficulty finding relevant information. Where does an ordinary Californian find out how much money a school or college district has already been authorized to borrow from past bond measures, or the principal and interest owed from past bond sales that still needs to be repaid, or the projected changes in assessed property valuation and how they affect tax and debt limits, or the past and projected student enrollment? The state does not offer a clearinghouse of information for the public to research and compare data about bond measures and bond debt for educational districts. Much of the information available about debt finance for educational districts is oriented toward interests of bond investors rather than people who pay the debt.
Californians who recognize a need for their own local educational districts to refrain from accumulating additional debt have significant obstacles to overcome. State law gives supporters of bond measures a systematic strategic advantage when local districts develop bond measures and put them before voters for approval. Campaigns to support bond measures are funded and even managed by financial and construction industry interests that will profit after passage. And after voters approve a bond measure, educational districts are tempted to take advantage of ambiguities in state law and use bond proceeds for items and activities not typically regarded by the public as construction.
To help to fix these deficiencies, this report encourages the California legislature and the executive branch to adopt five sets of recommendations:
At a time of low interest rates, California school and community college districts may benefit in some circumstances from borrowing money to fund school construction, just like households benefit from home mortgages and car loans. But California voters — and their elected representatives — need to become much more informed about the debt legacy they are leaving to their children and grandchildren.
Emotional sentiment, lobbying pressure from interest groups, and eagerness to circumvent frustrating tax and debt limits in state law can overwhelm a prudent sense of caution. Irrational decisions that burden future generations cannot necessarily be fixed after the public finds out about them.
Californians will be asked in 2016 to continue taking on debt for construction of educational facilities, but one elected official is leery. Governor Jerry Brown wants to change the funding system for school construction. He is concerned about debt that Californians have accumulated from years of allowing the state and local educational districts to relentlessly borrow.
That money borrowed through bond sales will have to be paid back — with interest — to the investors who bought them. Voters have limited understanding of bonds and how bonds provide funds for construction, and elections focus on what voters will get rather than how they will pay for it. To the detriment of future generations, few Californians realize the huge amount educational districts have been authorized to borrow and the huge amount of debt accumulated.
Whatever voters are asked to approve in 2016 will not launch a new program to fix long-neglected schools to serve a rapidly expanding state population while providing smaller class sizes. That thinking is a legacy of the 1990s that seems to endure today despite 14 years of most bond measures passing at a 55 percent threshold for voter approval. Arguments for another state bond measure in 2016 ignore or downplay how local school and college districts and the state obtained authority in the past 14 years to borrow $146.1 billion for educational construction.
If voters are not told or reminded of recent borrowing patterns, how can they make an informed decision on future borrowing? To rectify the lack of availability of statistics on total bond debt in California for educational facility construction, the California Policy Center collected, synthesized, and analyzed data regarding California educational construction finance. The California Policy Center believes it is the first and only entity to painstakingly research and present an accurate and comprehensive record of all state and local educational construction bond measures considered by voters from 2001 through 2014.
It’s likely that most California voters have limited familiarity with the organization and governance of their local school and community college districts. When voters authorize their local educational districts to borrow money for construction by selling bonds, presumably they trust that the local school or college district will exercise prudence in managing the process. Sometimes their trust is betrayed.
To discourage abuse of the school construction finance system, voters need to be aware of how their local government is organized and managed. They also need to realize that state law does not explicitly give Independent Citizens’ Bond Oversight Committees broad authority to review construction programs funded by bond measures.
How can voters become informed about bonds and the process of borrowing money for educational construction through bond sales? Is there a way to explain in clear plain language what actually happens after voters approve a bond measure and authorize a school or college district to borrow money via bond sales?
In 1993, California law was changed so that school and college districts could use an innovative form of debt finance called zero-coupon bonds, also known as Capital Appreciation Bonds. These bonds allow school and college districts to borrow now for construction and pay it back — with compounded interest — many years later. The borrowing strategy has been a tempting and dangerous lure for elected school and college boards.
Some people think Capital Appreciation Bonds are a “ticking time bomb” or the “creation of a toxic waste dump.” Others regard critics as uninformed and contend that these debt finance instruments are beneficial for school and college districts. Since the people who will be paying off many of these Capital Appreciation Bonds are now children or not even born yet, there isn’t much incentive to stop the flow of borrowed money that doesn’t need to be paid back for a generation or two.
Californians who want more spending on educational construction often express their resentment of a 2000 law limiting taxes and debt resulting from bond sales. It was passed in order to strengthen campaign arguments to voters in support of Proposition 39, which lowered the approval threshold for local bond measures from two-thirds to 55%. School districts have adopted several strategies to get around these limits in state law. One of them is very obscure but 100% successful: obtaining waivers from the State Board of Education.
Meanwhile, some districts are stretching legal definitions to use proceeds from bond sales to pay for items that resemble instructional material more than construction. One example is personal portable electronics such as iPads. Some of the state’s largest districts are purchasing this kind of technology while giving little assurance to the public that long term bonds aren’t the source of the money. This equipment may be obsolete well before the bonds mature, meaning that future generations will pay for these devices long after they are outdated and discarded.
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.
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.
This report encourages the California legislature and the executive branch to adopt five sets of recommendations that will help to fix these deficiencies.
The California Policy Center rejects the idea that additional oversight and accountability isn’t needed or desirable. Some legislative reforms and education programs (both public and private) can overcome voter cynicism, frustration, apathy, and ignorance.
Tables A1 to A6
Appendices A to L