The How and Why of Measure YY, the San Diego Unified School District Bond Ask

by on October 18, 2018 · 0 comments

in Education, San Diego

Back in the old days before Proposition 13, local schools were funded locally. School boards had the authority to raise property tax rates, constrained by the understanding that the electorate would vote them out come election time if they went too far.

In practice, this meant school districts with lower property values ended up with inferior education facilities and programs. Court cases in the 1970’s began the erosion of local control in the cause of rectifying these inequities; Prop 13 put the state in the driver’s seat.

School boards can no longer levy property taxes. They can, however, ask voters to support local funding for schools through parcel taxes and bond measures. And in the majority of cases, voters have agreed with this method of filling the holes blown through local education budgets.

Seventy-two percent of local school bond proposals were approved in California between 2009 and 2017. In the 2016 election, voters statewide approved $23 billion in construction bonds offered by 184 K-12 and community college districts (a 92% pass rate) throughout California, mostly paid for with increases in parcel taxes. And that’s on top of a $9 billion statewide school bond measure.

Credit: pamlane / Flickr

The 2018 general election will see another 80+ bond ballot measures statewide. Eleven of those will come from school districts in San Diego County, including Santee (SS), Sweetwater (DD), Bonsall (EE), Borrego Springs (GG), Carlsbad (HH), Mountain Empire (JJ), Vista (LL), Del Mar (MM), South Bay Union(NN), Chula Vista (VV), and San Diego Unified (YY). A voter’s residence determines which of these asks appear on their ballot.

The largest general obligation school bond measure statewide is YY, $3.5 billion for the San Diego Neighborhood School Repair and Student Safety Measure, to be paid for with levy of 6-cents per $100 of assessed valuation on taxable property within the school district. (San Diego Unified is the largest district asking for money, also)

The sale of bonds authorized by this measure “may be used by the District for the construction, reconstruction, rehabilitation or replacement of school facilities, including the furnishing and equipping of school facilities, or the acquisition or lease of real property for school facilities,” according to the County Counsel’s analysis.

A 197-page PDF containing the full text has been posted by the San Diego Unified School District here and additional information about Measure YY has also been posted on the District’s website.

The rationale for this ask, in addition to the burden of keeping up with aging facilities, is based in large parts of the events of the past several years, namely the discoveries of lead in drinking water, and a proliferation of psychos who think shooting up schools will right wrongs or make them important persons.

Supporters of YY go further in listing the benefits:

  • The vast majority of that money goes for schools that serve non-Anglo kids.
  • Technology purchases have made SDUSD a leader nationally in putting tech in the classroom and helped raise test scores (now highest of any urban district in the state).
  • Classrooms equipped to teach 21st Century job skills.
  • Construction funds spent through a PLA/PSA which means local hire is required and union jobs at good wages and benefits.
  • Repair/renovate classrooms built in the 50s where lead solder was used in the water pipes and asbestos in the ceilings.
  • Major strides in adding solar energy to 220+ school sites (without which the city would never meet its greenhouse gas goals) and improving water efficiency.
  • School security improvements including new emergency communications (both to outside agencies like police and ambulances but also internally with the main office and classrooms), cameras, and single entry access points.

A decade ago independent architects and contractors estimated a cost of more than $5 billion (almost $7 billion in today’s dollars) would be required to bring SDUSD schools into the 21st century.

Since that estimate, SDUSD asked for voter approval of Measure S ($2.1B) and Measure Z ($2.8B). That puts the district a couple of billion dollars short, before the issues with drinking water and school safety arose. About 20% of past and future bond monies are dedicated to technology purchases, many of which in YY weren’t even conceived 10 years ago.

The District forged a landmark compromise with local Charter Schools in 2012 that continues with Measure YY, granting them the same percentage of bond funds as they have enrolled students in the District – currently about 16%. Charter funding is subject to the same restrictions (under the PLA reviewed by the oversight committee) as non-Charter funding.

Because school bond measures need more than a majority vote (55% for this one) to win, committees form to sell the public on their virtues. Contractors, unions, parent advocacy groups, and others cough up the money to get the word out. Since San Diego Unified has 46 public charter schools, and this bond proposal includes about $580 million upgrades for charters, the industry groups representing them have been major contributors to Measure YY.

The biggest single individual donors are Irwin and Joan Jacobs, whose $50,000 contribution was reported over the weekend. As of this writing, “Safety & Learning for Our Schools, Yes on Measure YY” has raised about half a million dollars.

As should be expected with any measure concerning taxation, the usual suspects have lined up to get their 15 minutes of fame speaking against the measure. So far it’s been all talk and no action, at least where spending any money is concerned.

Whirling anti-tax dervish and radio host Carl DeMaio held a press conference, making easily disprovable claims about the district, starting with the declaration Measure YY would cost San Diego residents an average of $1358.50 per year.

I didn’t know the “average” local resident lived in a million dollar plus McMansion. The average cost per resident at my University Heights condo would be about 10% of what DeMaio’s claiming.

He’s lined up the San Diego Taxpayers Association, the Republican Party of San Diego and San Diego Parents for Quality Education (don’t exist on the web yet, per Google) to warn the public about the mismanagement of previous bond issues, and claim the projects funded by YY were already paid for with previous bond measures.

Mixed in with all the nay-sayers rhetoric is their opposition to the Project Labor Agreement baked into Measure YY. It sets standards for pay and involves unions with getting experienced people hired, along with completing projects on time. It’s the “pay” and the “unions” part that galls the opponents. You get what you pay for; I’d just as soon work on schools was done by people with a track record of knowing what they’re doing rather than people with a record of paying crap wages.

I’ve had plenty of issues with San Diego Unified’s management style when it comes to how humans are treated, but bond money management isn’t one of them. The district currently pays the lowest interest rate of all districts in the state, as of the last bond issuance. With top ratings on their creditworthiness from Moody’s and Fitch, it doesn’t seem like bond cash management is an issue.

Voice of San Diego has beat the drum about repeated promises for funding thru the various bond measures. What’s certain is that some of the money from the 2008 and 2012 asks got used in ways not expected, in particular updates (questionable astroturf program) and additions (stadium lights) to sports facilities.

There is a problem there when it comes to saying wiring, plumbing, and other infrastructures need replacement. The language used in the measures proposals doesn’t say exactly which wiring or plumbing at which school. In fact, if you actually read these proposals, they all kinda look the same. Add parental pressure, the desire to be seen completing high profile projects and –Voila!– landscaping or wiring can mean a lot of things to a lot of people.

There are reasons for the template-like language backing up bond measures. First, the people who write these things for a living (yup, that’s a job category) know what has appealed to voters in the past. There’s also a similarity in the verbiage because there are only some many ways to describe fixing wiring or plumbing.

The district does maintain detailed records of the spending on each bond issue. For any given school– with a day or so of staff work– they can tell you what happened at that location with each bond and what will happen with YY.

Here’s inewsource reporter Jill Castellano:

Scott Barnett, the spokesman for the group supporting the bond measure, showed me around the Grant K-8 school in Mission Valley to explain what the different bonds pay for. He says: “The buildings over here were built under Proposition S in 2008 and Proposition Z in 2012. And the very old administration building and these old bungalows are all going to be replaced — new buildings, new classrooms, new administration, library — under Proposition YY.”

Most importantly, there’s the first law of renovation: what you think needs fixing and what actually does need fixing are never the same. Anybody who’s ever upgraded a bathroom will likely be willing to attest to that reality.


I think the most compelling argument against YY is “do we really need yet another bond measure?”

I thought about this long and hard and then realized that SDUSD is actually playing a good long game here. Let’s get this done while we can.

What goes up, must come down. There probably won’t be a great time to ask for money down the road for a few years.

Anybody who thinks the sugar rush from Trump-onomics won’t lead to a crash is probably working as an administration economist tasked with telling folks they just need to look harder for their four grand pay increase thanks to the tax bill.

Finally, putting money into school infrastructure benefits the entire community with jobs, (hopefully) smarter kids and energy efficiency. Education is the future for our local economy and it’s best to strike while the iron’s hot.

From San Diego Free Press

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