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Building debt: California voters pass more than $30 billion in local and state school bonds 

San Luis Obispo County joined state voters in wanting to spend locally in the 2016 election, passing four school district bonds totaling a little more than $274 million. 

Across the state, only 14 out of 184 local school funding measures failed, raising more than $23 billion for construction and modernization projects in 170 school districts, according to data compiled by Michael Coleman of californiacityfinance.com, the California Local City Finance Almanac. There were more tax and bond measures on the 2016 ballot in California than showed up in each of the last five prior election cycles, and more passed than ever before. 

“Eighty percent of school bonds historically pass, but this year it was 95 percent,” Coleman said. There are several factors that he thinks contributed, including voter turnout, what was on the ballot at the state and local levels (legalizing recreational marijuana, for example), and the kinds of voters who came out. “People inclined to support measures in general. … Particular things on the ballot will drive certain people to the ballot box.” 

People are more likely to vote in favor of local measures, Coleman said, because they are familiar with the issues and know where the money is going. But the $9 billion statewide bond passed despite opposition from the governor’s office and criticism from the state Legislative Analyst’s Office and various state policy watchdog groups, which say the way California funds school facility construction and improvement projects needs to change. 

Measure H2016, Santa Maria Joint Union School District’s $110 million bond measure to fund campus facility improvements, was one of the few local measures that failed. Although it received a majority of the votes, it required two-thirds to pass, while SLO County’s measures only needed 55.5 percent. Paso Robles Joint Unified School District’s $95 million bond received 57.6 percent of the vote.

San Miguel Joint Union School District’s $5.9 million bond passed with 62.3 percent. Lucia Mar Unified School District’s $170 million bond passed with 65.2 percent, and Shandon Joint Union School District’s $3.15 million received 74.5 percent. 

While all the bond funds will go to facility improvements on area K-12 campuses, the two most expensive measures will be allocated in part to replace old portable classrooms. It’s a necessity, according to Ashley Lightfoot with the San Luis Obispo County Office of Education, who said many of the portables now used as classroom facilities are well past their expiration dates.

“There was a period of time where we were growing really quickly, so we brought in a lot of modular buildings,” Lightfoot said. But those were only supposed to last 10 to 15 years and they’ve been in use for more like 20 to 25 years. “The buildings we build now, we consider them 100-year buildings.” 

The bonds will also pay for things like energy efficiency and technology upgrades, new air conditioning and heating systems, sports facilities, and science labs. 

“The reality is: Your equipment starts to fail over time,” Lightfoot said, and replacing it can be expensive—often cost-prohibitive with the year-to-year funding a district brings in from state and local sources. Capital projects, such as new buildings, are also costly but necessary expenses that aren’t factored into the yearly state budget set by the California Legislature.

That’s a problem, according to the state Legislative Analyst’s Office, which issued a report earlier this year criticizing the state’s School Facilities Program (SFP). Between 1998 and 2014, California voters passed $35 billion in statewide bonds to fund the SFP, which allocates matching grants to districts. Basically, school districts pass bonds for capital projects like new buildings or new schools and infrastructure improvements such as wiring campuses with Wi-Fi and the state matches those funds by 50 percent and 60 percent respectively. That pot of state bond money, last refilled in 2006, was exhausted in 2012. The $9 billion statewide bond measure will refill the SFP’s grants fund coffer.

“The Legislature generally considers facility funding only when it asks voters to approve a state school facilities bond,” the report states. “It is difficult to justify treating facilities so differently from other school expenses. … This is a predictable, ongoing responsibility.”

The way the system works now, if a district wants to build or improve, “the rule of the day is, kind of, ‘we help people who support themself,’” Lightfoot with the county education office said of the state’s system. If a school district has the ability to pass a bond, the state will match it. Local bonds have been funding new schools and new school buildings since at least 1849, the state’s report states. 

Lightfoot said Paso’s second school was built with the passage of a tax measure in 1887: 75 students enrolled for a school that held 48 desks, so a third was built two years later. That same measure built Paso’s high school in 1892. 

“The cost of building a public school is very expensive; it’s easily two to three times the cost of building a home,” Lightfoot said. “Legally, the only real kind of practical measure is to pass a bond.” 

Editor Camillia Lanham can be reached at clanham@newtimesslo.com

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