Quantifying and Explaining California’s Educational Construction Debt (Section 3 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:
You are here: Quantifying and Explaining California’s Educational Construction Debt (3 of 9)
Guide to all Tables and Appendices – Comprehensive Reference for Researchers
Quantifying and Explaining California’s Educational Construction Debt
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 still 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 voters 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.
The amount of authority approved by voters is a higher percentage than the percentage of the number of bond measures approved by voters because larger bond measures proposed by larger districts passed at a higher rate than smaller bond measures proposed by smaller districts.
How Did It Become So Easy to Pass Bond Measures?
A new era of generous borrowing for educational construction in California was inaugurated by the enactment of Proposition 39. Approved by 53.4% of voters in the November 7, 2000 election, it reduced the voter approval threshold for most educational construction bond measures from two-thirds to 55 percent. (Because the measure imposes restrictions on districts using the new 55 percent threshold, a minority of districts have continued to propose measures requiring a two-thirds vote.)
This lowered obstacle apparently encouraged local educational districts to take the risk of proposing many more bond measures at much higher amounts for voters to approve. As shown in Tables 3 and 4, dropping the voter threshold from 66.67% to 55% transformed the approval of educational bond measures from a 50-50 chance to a commonplace outcome.
As shown in Table 5, between now and 2055, California’s taxpayers will pay about $200 billion in principal and interest payments to investors who have bought bonds issued by the state and by local educational districts in order to get funding for facility construction.
How Was Debt Service Determined?
California Policy Center researchers identified, calculated, and tallied aggregate debt service for almost all of the 642 California local educational districts in which voters approved borrowing money for construction through bond sales after the election of November 7, 2000. On that date, California voters approved Proposition 39 and reduced the threshold for voter approval of most bond measures for construction from two-thirds to 55 percent.
This debt service data was obtained using tables included in about 650 “Official Statements” posted on a publicly-accessible and free-to-use Electronic Municipal Market Access (EMMA) website administered by the Municipal Securities Rulemaking Board (MSRB).
What are these statements? Federal law generally requires underwriters in a primary offering of municipal bonds of $1 million or more to obtain and review an Official Statement from the issuer of those bonds. (Many smaller bond offerings also have Official Statements.) In a dense report of more than 200 pages, these statements disclose financial information meant to inform a potential buyer and reduce the chance of “fraudulent, deceptive, or manipulative acts or practices.”
Official Statements include a chart that indicates how much aggregate principal and interest the issuer of the bonds would owe each year if the bonds weren’t refunded (“called in” or redeemed so that new bonds can be issued at a lower interest rate) or paid off early. California Policy Center researchers entered each district name into the EMMA system, identified the most recent bond offering or bond refunding from the list of bond issues, downloaded the associated Official Statement, located the aggregate debt service chart, and calculated the total debt service for 2015 and/or later years.
Using these Official Statements to extract data required diligence. Firms that produce the statements do not use a specific standard format, so the aggregate debt service table appears in different places. Tables differ in title, format, or details of content. Older Official Statements are not optimized for word searches. A few tables do not total up the annual debt service, thus forcing the user to convert the table into a spreadsheet and calculate the total using a formula. A handful of Official Statements outright lacked aggregate debt service tables.
Tables may even contain erroneous data. After some confusion, researchers realized that an Official Statement for the Napa Valley Unified School District contained major errors. It indicated total debt service as $77 million instead of the actual $665 million and also indicated a November 5, 2002 bond measure as authorizing $219 million instead of the actual $95 million. This was an unfortunate district to have an erroneous Official Statement: a California Watch article published in the San Francisco Chronicle just three months before the Official Statement was posted identified the Napa Valley Unified School District as a district where taxpayers will eventually “pay dearly for bonds.” In 2009 it borrowed $22 million through Capital Appreciation Bond sales that will cost $154 million by the time the last bonds in the series mature forty years later, in 2049.
Researchers also had to be cautious about accurately identifying school districts with similar names. For example, Central, Oak Grove, and Columbia are words shared by more than one school district. And “College School District” in Santa Barbara County is not a community college district. Some of the inconsistencies found in cross-referencing various sources for bond measure data seem to be a result of misidentifying districts with similar-sounding names.
Even after these challenges were overcome, researchers recognized that the list of debt service for school and college districts needs to be considered with some caveats. (Table 6 is “Cautionary Considerations When Evaluating Current Debt Service Data for School and College Districts.”) Researchers are also aware of arguments that debt service — even when considered with other financial data — is not always a useful way to assess whether or not school or college districts have been irresponsible in their choices for debt finance of facilities construction. A few of those arguments are listed in Table 7: Why Some Analysts Downplay Debt Service Data.
Despite these potential limitations, aggregate debt service amounts available through Official Statements posted on EMMA provide new insight into the long term debt obligations owed by California local educational districts for facilities construction. This data set represents a major advance in informing Californians about the tremendous debt accumulated by educational districts that borrow money for school construction by selling bonds.
Electronic Municipal Market Access (EMMA) website administered by the Municipal Securities Rulemaking Board (MSRB) http://emma.msrb.org
“Napa Valley Unified School District,” Electronic Municipal Market Access (EMMA), May 9, 2013, accessed June 28, 2015, http://emma.msrb.org/EA524107-EA408291-EA805228.pdf
“School Districts Pay Dearly for Bonds,” San Francisco Chronicle, January 31, 2013, accessed June 28, 2015, www.sfgate.com/education/article/School-districts-pay-dearly-for-bonds-4237868.php