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"For the Kids" – Comprehensive Review of California School Bonds, Executive Summary (Section 1 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: 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)
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


Executive Summary 

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:

Five Categories of Recommendations
1Provide Adequate and Effective Oversight and Accountability for Bond Measures
2Enable Voters to Make a Reasonably Informed Decision on Bond Measures
3Eliminate or Mitigate Conflicts of Interest in Contracting Related to Bond Measures
4Reduce Inappropriate, Excessive, or Unnecessary Spending of Bond Proceeds
5Improve Understanding of Bond Measures Through Public Education Campaigns

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.


Section Summaries

Section 2. Why This Report Matters: More Borrowing in 2016

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.

Section 3. 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 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.

Section 4. How Educational Districts Acquire and Manage Debt

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?

Section 5. Capital Appreciation Bonds: Disturbing Repayment Terms

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.

Section 6. Tricks of the Trade: Questionable Behavior with Bonds

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.

Section 7. 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.

Section 8. More Trouble 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.

Section 9. Improving Oversight, Accountability, and Fiscal Responsibility

This report encourages the California legislature and the executive branch to adopt five sets of recommendations that will help to fix these deficiencies.

Five Categories of Recommendations
1Provide Adequate and Effective Oversight and Accountability for Bond Measures
2Enable Voters to Make a Reasonably Informed Decision on Bond Measures
3Eliminate or Mitigate Conflicts of Interest in Contracting Related to Bond Measures
4Reduce Inappropriate, Excessive, or Unnecessary Spending of Bond Proceeds
5Improve Understanding of Bond Measures Through Public Education Campaigns

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 and Appendices of “For the Kids: California Voters Must Become Wary…”

Tables A1 to A6

Table A-1 California K-12 School Districts 2013-2014 – Ranked by Enrollment

Table A-2 California Community College District Enrollment Fall 2014 Ranked by Number of Students

Table A-3 Details of Bond Indebtedness Waiver Requests from California School Districts to State Board of Education 2002 through March 2015

Table A-4 California School Construction & Finance History

Table A-5 Arguments for Capital Appreciation Bonds

Table A-6 Arguments Against Capital Appreciation Bonds

Appendices A to L

Appendix A – All California Educational Bond Measures Pass and Fail – 2001-2014 Ranked by Percentage of Voter Approval

Appendix B – All California Educational Bond Measures Approved by Voters – 2001-2014 Ranked by Amount Authorized to Borrow

Appendix C – All California Educational Bond Measures Rejected 2001-2014 – Ranked by Amount NOT Authorized to Borrow

Appendix D – All California Educational Bond Measures Approved With a Two-Thirds Threshold Since November 2000 Enactment of Proposition 39 – Listed By Election Year

Appendix E – All California Educational Bond Measures 55 Percent – 2001-2014

Appendix F – All California Educational Bond Measures Repurposed or Reauthorized Since November 2000 Enactment of Proposition 39 – Listed by Election Year

Appendix G – All California Educational Bond Measures Approved by Voters with 55 Percent Threshold Since November 2000 – Results if Prop 39 Had Not Been Law

Appendix H – All California Educational Bond Measures Approved by Voters Under 55 Percent Threshold Since November 2000 Enactment of Proposition 39 – Failures Under 2:3 Threshold

Appendix I – All California Educational Bond Measures Approved by Voters – 2001-2014 Ranked by Amount of Debt Service

Appendix J – All Educational Districts in Which Voters Authorized Borrowing Via Bond Sales Since Proposition 39 – Ratio of Current Debt Service to Amount Authorized

Appendix K – All Educational Districts in Which Voters Authorized Borrowing Via Bond Sales Since November 2000 Enactment of Prop 39 – Ratio of Current Debt Service to Total Yes Votes

Appendix L – All Educational Districts in Which Voters Authorized Borrowing Via Bond Sales Since November 2000 Enactment of Prop 39 – Ranked by Amount Authorized Per Yes Vote

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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:
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)
You are here: 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)
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


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.

Table 2: Local Educational Bond Measures Considered by California Voters After Passage of Proposition 39 in November 2000
Number on Ballot1147
Number Approved911
Number Rejected236
Percentage Approved79.42%
Percentage Rejected20.58%
Amount Proposed to Authorize$124,350,056,744
Amount Proposed to Authorize (including 16 reauthorizations)$125,080,421,744
Amount Authorized$109,620,418,737
Amount Authorized (including 16 reauthorizations)$110,350,783,737
Amount Rejected$14,729,638,007
Percentage of Authority Approved (including 16 reauthorizations)88.22%
Percentage of Authority Rejected (including 16 reauthorizations)11.78%
Amount Authorized Through Three Statewide Bond Measures$35,766,000,000
Total Amount Proposed to Authorize (State and Local Bond Measures)$160,116,056,744
Total Amount Proposed to Authorize (State and Local Bond Measures) (including 16 reauthorizations)$160,846,421,744
Total Amount Authorized (State and Local Bond Measures)
(including 16 reauthorizations)
$146,116,783,737

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.

Table 3: Local Educational Bond Measures Considered by California Voters After Passage of Proposition 39 in November 2000
55% ApprovalTwo-Thirds
Approval
Total
Number on Ballot10371101147
Number Approved85754911
Number Rejected18056236
Percentage Approved82.64%49.09%79.42%
Percentage Rejected17.36%50.91%20.58%
Table 4: Local Educational Bond Measures: Results If Proposition 39 Wasn't Law
Under Prop 39
(55% and 2/3)
If Prop 39 Wasn’t Enacted (2/3)
Total Number of Bond Measures on Ballot11471147
Number of Bond Measures Approved911423
Percentage of Bond Measures Approved79.42%36.88%
Total Amount Authorized to Borrow
(includes reauthorizations)
$125,080,421,744$52,712,273,012
Percentage of Authorization Amount Approved88.22%42.15%
Table 5: Total Amount of Debt Service for Educational Facility Construction
Amount for 642 School and College Districts for Which Voters Approved Bond Measures Since Proposition 39 Passed in 2000$136,867,456,924
Amount for Three Bond Measures That Voters Approved for State of California Since Proposition 39 Passed in 2000$56,668,673,695
Estimate for Several Dozen School Districts Where Voters Approved Bond Measures Only Before Enactment of Proposition 39 or Lack Data$2,000,000,000
Estimated Amount for Several Bond Measures That Voters Approved for State of California Before Proposition 39 Passed in 2000$4,500,000,000
Approximate Total$200,000,000,000

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).

Example of Official StatementWhat 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.

Table 6: Cautionary Considerations When Evaluating Current Debt Service Data for School and College Districts
1For some school or college districts, debt service may be relatively low compared to the total amount authorized to borrow because those districts haven't issued all of the bonds (or any of the bonds) yet. When those districts sell all of the bonds in the amount authorized by voters, debt service will be higher.
2An educational district in a wealthy area can have high debt service but also have high and stable total assessed property value. That high debt service may be inappropriate, but it is not as risky as the same debt service in a less affluent district with unstable property values and an uncertain economic future.
3Some California educational districts do not have debt service listed in the appendices because they recently sold bonds through “private placement.” These transactions do not require Official Statements to be posted on EMMA. Without an Official Statement, long term debt obligation from bonds is more difficult to obtain. And when obtained through annual financial reports, that number may be outdated compared to information available in an Official Statement.
4The appendices indicate all aggregate debt service for 642 districts in which voters approved bond sales since Proposition 39 was enacted in 2000. This means there may be some distortions when comparing data, for the following reasons:

Aggregate debt service listed for districts may originate from bond measures approved by two-thirds of voters as far back as 1987 and up through November 7, 2000. This means that debt service for some districts may appear disproportionately high relative to the amount authorized by voters to borrow from 2001 through 2014.

There are a handful of districts that have current debt service resulting from bond measures approved in 2000 or earlier but have not asked voters to authorize additional borrowing since the November 7, 2000 election. That debt service is not included in the grand total reported here.

Likewise, California voters approved several ballot propositions before Proposition 39 was enacted in 2000, including a $9.2 billion bond measure passed in 1998 that included $6.7 billion for K-12 school districts and $2.5 billion collectively for community college districts and the California State University and the University of California campuses.
5Several K-12 school districts have merged in the past 15 years. Some Official Statements segregate debt service for the districts before they merged, and some combine the debt service.
6Several community college district and K-12 school districts have created “School Facilities Improvement Districts” carved out from the complete jurisdiction of the districts. Some Official Statements segregate debt service for these sub-districts, and some combine the debt service for the sub-districts with the debt service for the complete district.
7Debt service tables in Official Statements do not account for Bond Anticipation Notes, Certificates of Participation, lease revenue bonds, and other ways that educational districts borrow money.
8Community Facilities Districts funded by Mello-Roos bonds are not included in Official Statements.

Sources

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

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