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