On the California Ballot: A $15 Billion School Bond, Plus Another $17 Billion in Borrowing at the Local Level
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On the California Ballot: A $15 Billion School Bond, Plus Another $17 Billion in Borrowing at the Local Level

California's school and community college districts issued $125 billion in general obligation bonds from 1984 to 2019.

Many of California’s primary voters are understandably focused on the Democratic presidential primary. But their March 3 ballots also contain significant school bond measures that demand consideration.

With early voting underway, state voters are being asked to weigh in on Proposition 13, a $15 billion general obligation bond that would subsidize school infrastructure projects around the state.

Separately, K-12 school districts and community college districts have placed bond measures on local ballots authorizing an additional $17 billion in borrowing.

Statewide, Californians do not appear to be straining the capacity of the state’s school infrastructure.

Enrollment in traditional K-12 public schools has been roughly stagnant for years. Community College student enrollment peaked in 2008-09 at 2.9 million students, fell rapidly after the end of the Great Recession as prospective students found jobs, and has started ticking back up — with 2.4 million enrolled in 2018-19.

Further, the state has already made a significant investment in K-14 infrastructure.

According to the state treasurer’s DebtWatch database, school and community college districts issued $125 billion in general obligation bonds from 1984 to 2019, refinancing excluded. Plus, voters approved five statewide education bond measures between 1998 and 2016 totaling $54 billion.

With flat-to-declining enrollment figures, does the state really need to borrow billions more to fund investments in school infrastructure?

Undoubtedly, California must maintain and replace aging school buildings. But is a price tag in the tens of billions necessary?

The new Proposition 13 authorizes $9 billion in borrowing for K-12 schools, $2 billion for community colleges and $4 billion for state universities. Most of the money takes the form of matching funds, which local districts can use to top up their own building programs.

In the rush to qualify for these funds, over 110 districts have placed bond measures on the March ballot.

Some of the larger bond measures have attracted criticism.

For example, West Contra Costa Unified’s $575 million measure was panned in a recent San Jose Mercury News editorial.  The newspaper observed that the nearly insolvent district already has $1.4 billion in outstanding bonds with plans to issue $200 million in previously authorized debt this year.

If voters approve the latest measure, the district’s bond program would approach $70,000 per student and the owner of a home with an average assessment would pay almost $1100 in property taxes for school debt service alone.

In the Central Valley, opponents of Merced Community College District’s $247 million bond measure questioned whether additional borrowing would improve student success, noting that the college has suffered a 12% enrollment decline and “recently lost $3.8 million in state funding because students aren’t meeting state-mandated performance measures.”

An even more debatable bond measure is on the ballot in the Bay Area.

The San Francisco Community College District is asking voters to authorize $845 million in new bonds despite suffering a catastrophic decline in enrollment due in part to an accreditation controversy.

Fearing that their Community College of San Francisco degrees might prove worthless in the job market, many students went elsewhere. Enrollment plunged from 90,000 in 2011-12 to 65,000 today. With so much excess capacity at the school, it is hard to understand why additional construction is necessary.

And with so many San Franciscans living on the streets, investing in educational infrastructure seems to be an especially odd priority. Indeed, many Community College of San Francisco students are homeless, as are over 1,800 of the city’s K-12 pupils.

While not all the local bond measures are objectionable as the ones I have highlighted here, voters should take a critical look at the bonds on their ballots. If the proposals lack specificity, result in overcapacity, or lead to excessive district debt, a “no” vote would be the judicious choice.

A version of this column originally appeared on CalMatters.org.