Urgency of School Improvement Bonds Contradicted by State Dept of Educations Own Reports

By Andrew Heritage and Catrin Thorman
December 12, 2016

In 2015, officials of the Brea Olinda Unified School District (BOUSD) told state officials all nine of its school facilities were in “exemplary” condition. Six months later, the same district officials told residents the facilities were “deteriorating” – and that the schools would not survive without a $148 million renovation.

That disparity – a ratings change from exemplary to deteriorating in half a year – was not unusual. In district after district, the California Policy Center found the same phenomenon: school district officials tell state officials their school facilities are good, even exemplary. Then, just months later, those same district officials tell local voters their schools are in such poor shape that only an extraordinary tax hike can save students such health threats as mold and asbestos, leaking roofs and electrical fires.

The warnings may account for the fact voters approved 153 of the 166 proposed school bond measures in the most recent November election. The upbeat self-assessments of nearly every California school appear in what’s called a School Accountability Report Card (SARC), published annually by the California State Dept. of Education.

In SARCs, local school officials rank the condition of each of their facilities’ systems (including HVAC, electrical, restrooms, fire safety, hazardous materials and roofs) and then give the campus an overall rating – exemplary, good, fair or poor. The California Policy Center reviewed SARCs from the largest 25 school district bond measures on the November ballot. Out of the 948 SARCs available in those districts, 935 gave glowing self-assessments, telling the state Department of Education facilities were good or even exemplary.

We published our preliminary findings on two Orange County bond measures, Brea Olinda School District’s Measure K and Capistrano Unified School District’s Measure M. Measure M was the second-largest bond on the state’s ballots – worth $889 million. Among the state’s top 25 largest bonds, Measure M alone failed to win on November 8. At $148 million, Brea Olinda’s Measure K was the second-largest bond measure to fail.

In Long Beach Unified School District (LBUSD), voters were told outdated buildings created health and safety concerns and that Measure E – at $1.5 billion, the largest school bond on the November ballot – would fix “deteriorating bathrooms, plumbing, leaky roofs and old wiring.”

Yet, LBUSD’s SARCs reveal no concern for the 84 school campuses. Six of those schools were rated exemplary, 75 were good. Three schools simply failed to complete their SARCs. Restrooms, roofs and electrical systems were individually inspected and rated good. A few schools noted that interior surfaces were only fair or poor, but the space on the form reserved for administrators’ notes about repairs was always left blank.

Elk Grove Unified School District’s Measure M sold voters on a $476 million bond to “fix deteriorating roofs, plumbing, and HVAC systems.” Just a few months before, on its 2015 SARCs, the district boasted its 63 schools were in exemplary condition. All systems inspected – including roofs, plumbing, heating, ventilation and air conditioning – were, officials said, in good condition and required no maintenance.

The ominous messaging in support of school bonds effectively appeals to voters’ instincts to vote yes for the kids. From 2001-2014, 80% of school bond measures passed in California. In November, voters beat even that number, approving 91.5% of all school bonds and adding $15.7 billion in new taxes – before interest.

Born in 1988 as a marketing device to sell a statewide spending hike, the SARC requirement is morphing again – from a regulatory compliance hassle to a public relations opportunity. Private-sector firms that once emphasized the importance of complying with state education law now emphasize the chance to boast. One such firm, School Innovations & Achievement (SI&A), located in El Dorado Hills, California, markets its services to complete SARCs on behalf of school districts as “your opportunity to shine.” The company says its function is not much regulatory as marketing – the chance to “build support for upcoming bond legislation and impress your board with a quality report and unique positioning of each of your schools.”

Misreporting the condition of school facilities – or not reporting them at all – would seem to violate state law. If it does, the violation comes with no obvious penalty.

“An active school that doesn’t have a current SARC available for public access is considered out of compliance,” a state Department of Education official told CPC. School districts undergo annual audits, but “statutes do not provide for financial consequences when a school district is late or does not file a SARC.”

It is unclear which assessment of California’s public school facilities is correct. Bond advocates consistently mention the necessity of funds to repair deteriorating schools, while the SARCs rarely mention deteriorating conditions or indicate California’s public schools are dilapidated at all. Rather, the reports rate the quality of the overwhelming majority of school facilities as exemplary or good. Meaningful accountability ensures children are educated in safe facilities, but it should also give taxpayers an honest assessment of school conditions.

Catrin Thorman and Andrew Heritage are California Policy Center fall Journalism Fellows.