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School officials want you thinking how to spend millions, but not how they’ll get it

Survey says? Whatever they want it to say.

Under the guise of measuring public opinion, Santa Ana school officials are trying to shape it – and they’re using taxpayer dollars to pay for it.

In April and May, Santa Ana Unified School District officials papered the city with mail that looks like a poll. The direct-mail campaign included questions about how residents would spend $479 million to “support high quality instruction, repair deteriorating facilities, provide modern science labs, replace failing heating and ventilation systems, and replace portable classrooms.”

Officials asked the questions in anticipation of a district-wide vote on a multi-million-dollar bond. On a 4-1 vote last month, the district’s board of trustees placed the bond on the November ballot.

State law allows government officials to communicate nonpartisan information, but not to engage in politicking.

“This mailing was neither a scientific survey or a poll or mere educational outreach,” said Will Swaim of the California Policy Center. “It was a push poll, an attempt by Santa Ana Unified officials to persuade voters, and that would be illegal under state law.”

A push poll is meant to promote a political message under the pretense of collecting public feedback.

The Santa Ana survey is part of a broader trend in California politics. “It’s now common for local officials seeking tax increases or bond issues from voters to hire campaign consultants on the fiction that they will provide unbiased information to the voting public,” said veteran political commentator Dan Walters.“These consultants conduct polling to determine which angles of proposals are most attractive to voters, write the measures to stress those popular features and then produce literature and ads to trumpet those selling points.”

On first glance, the Santa Ana mailing looks like an actual survey. The front page states, “Santa Ana Unified School District wants to hear from you.” On the second page, respondents are told that “developing a plan for the future of our schools should be a community-driven process.”

But the “survey” strongly implies that the bond is essential – and that it’s so likely to succeed at the polls in November that voters should start thinking about how they’d like to spend hundreds of millions of dollars.

These millions will come from Santa Ana residents and businesses – a fact the district downplays.

A bond is a loan that will be repaid by local taxpayers over a period of years. Public officials have priced the November bond all over the map – from $479 million when they first launched it, they soon raised the price tag to $518 million. More recently, without explanation, the district announced the bond was $232 million. None of those numbers include interest payments that will double the cost to taxpayers. The district is still paying off two previous bonds.

“Santa Ana’s campaign strategy is a little like sending your kids a bill in January for all the toys you gave them in December,” said Swaim. “Everybody’s excited to think about spending. It’d be great if district officials told their residents about the costs to individuals and businesses.”

One of the first things respondents saw on the April-May survey was a message in capital letters: “Improving the Quality of Local Schools.” The accompanying note from the district superintendent emphasizes the district’s pressing need for more cash.

Further, the survey asks respondents to rank their priorities on bond spending. The menu of options ranges from upgrading classrooms and repairing deteriorating roofs and electrical systems, to replacing failing heating and ventilation systems.

Critics say the district’s approval of every proposed teacher pay raise and rising pension debt is consuming so much money that almost nothing is left for facility maintenance or hiring new teachers. Hence, the November bond.

“Santa Ana can ill afford another tax increase,” says Art Pedroza, a Santa Ana resident and publisher of the website New Santa Ana. “Our residents include many seniors on fixed incomes and young families struggling to survive. This latest bond measure will raise their cost of living.

“Ultimately this bond measure is a gift to the unions at taxpayer expense.”

Kelly McGee is a Rhodes College (Memphis) graduate and CPC journalism intern.

Is $288 Million the Right Price for Orange Unified High School Upgrades?

Given declining enrollment, Orange Unified School District’s $288 million bond measure may fund more school upgrades than students need.  There is also a risk that the taxpayer cost of debt service for the bond issue will exceed the district’s forecast rate of $29 per $100,000 of assessed valuation.

According to statistics from Ed Data, enrollment across the four OUSD high schools fell from 9,311 in the 2010-2011 school year to 8,936 in 2014-2015, the latest school year for which figures are available. The district projects continued enrollment declines through 2018-2019, but does not provide a breakout by school. Total OUSD enrollment – excluding charters – fell from 27,344 in 2014-2015 to 26,685 in 2015-2016, and is expected to reach 26,135 in 2018-2019.

Using the current enrollment of 8,936 students, proposed renovations to the four high schools would cost over $32,000 per pupil (excluding interest). By contrast, Orange Lutheran High School completed its own upgrade in 2014 at a cost of less than $12,000 per pupil.

CAFETERIA PLANNING: The cafeteria at private Orange Lutheran, part of a recent $12,000 per pupil upgrade. In the same city, union-controlled Orange Unified wants to spend $32,000 per pupil to renovate four high schools.

CAFETERIA PLANNING: The student cafeteria at private Orange Lutheran High School, part of a recent $12,000 per pupil upgrade. In the same community, union-controlled Orange Unified wants to spend $32,000 per pupil (plus interest) to renovate four high schools.

Nationally, the median cost of building a new high school was $45 million in 2014 according to School Planning and Management (although the median high school housed 1,000 students, about half the number in OUSD schools). This suggests that the cost of renovating OUSD’s four high schools, at an average cost of $72 million each, may not represent a savings over building new facilities.

Further, the district may spend more than $288 million on the renovations if it is able to obtain Proposition 51 matching funds.  If Prop 51 passes in November ,the state’s Office of School Construction will have $9 billion in state general bond proceeds that can be allocated to school districts renovating and building schools.

With a shrinking student population and the potential availability of state matching funds, it appears that the district could borrow much less than $288 million to ensure that high school students have an appropriate learning environment. This raises the question of how the board decided to ask for $288 million in borrowing authority.

The district hired an opinion research firm to poll voters on a possible bond measure. In one survey, the research firm asked voters whether they would approve bond measures at four different tax levels – $25, $29, $34 and $39 per $100,000 of assessed valuation. They found than less than 55% of the electorate would support a bond measure that added $34 or $39 of taxes per $100,000 of assessed value, but that 59% favored a $29 measure and 62% supported a $25 measure. Thus, it would appear that the bond measure was sized on the basis of voter appetite – not on an objective assessment of actual renovation needs and costs.

On October 4, the district’s financial advisor presented a financing plan consistent with the proposed $29 tax increase per $100,000 of assessed value. The plan assumes that $79 million of bonds would be sold shortly after the election and the remaining $209 million would be sold in 2021. Projected debt service rises from $9.5 million in 2017 to $28.8 million in 2046 – representing a 4% annual rate of increase. For the tax rate to stay at $29 per $100,000, assessed valuations will have to also rise by 4% annually. According to the financial advisor’s data, OUSD has experienced annual assessed value increases of 4.26% over the past 15 years. If this trend continues, the tax rate for the new bonds would actually decline slightly – as the tax base expands slightly faster than the debt service costs. If, however, the valuation increase does not materialize, perhaps because of depressed economic conditions or an earthquake, the tax rate would have to increase.